The last time the official city of Memphis website got a makeover, the country was heading into war with Iraq and there was no such thing as Facebook or iPhones.
That was 2002. Ten years later, the city has selected a local, minority-owned consulting firm to lead the design and development of a new MemphisTN.gov to be launched by next May.
"The current site is homegrown, and it's been pieced along over the years. It's not bad, but it doesn't conform with what we would think of today as an interactive site," said Cardell Orrin, owner of Linx Consulting, the firm that will lead the website makeover.
Orrin is hoping to engage the public before any work is done on the new site.
"The [city website] is a public resource. It's our online town square, so just like there were public meetings on Overton Square and Madison bike lanes, we also want to hold meetings to engage the community," Orrin said.
He got his first batch of suggestions last weekend at a workshop on city website development during Livable Memphis' annual Summit for Neighborhood Leaders.
Most attendees had basic needs for the city site, such as making it more searchable, graphically pleasing, and easily navigable. One woman in the audience suggested making the city website more socially interactive with a way for people to "check in" at physical sites around the city, much like users do on Foursquare or Facebook.
Linx will hold three more public input sessions within the next month: October 27th at the Whitehaven Library, November 3rd at the Raleigh Library, and November 15th at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
In about a week, a microsite, BuiltItMemphis.org, will launch as a place for citizens to make suggestions for the new site and read posts about the site's progress.
The city will take all suggestions into consideration, but city director of information services Brent Nair said one common complaint would definitely be heeded.
"Easier navigation is needed. I consistently hear from citizens that it's hard to navigate the site, and they can't find anything," Nair said.
Nair said he'd also like the site to be designed so that all city divisions have the ability to modify content. For example, he'd like Parks Services employees to be able to create an ongoing calendar of events for city parks.
"We also want to add some built-in social networking features, like blogs or things of that nature," Nair said.
The city has earmarked $252,000 in the capital improvement budget for the site redesign. Linx, which also helped develop websites for Shelby Farms Park and Sustainable Shelby, is partnering with Atlanta-based MediaCurrent for the back-end site development work, which will be done using Drupal, an open-source content management system.
Drupal's open-source nature means it's free of licensing fees. Large government and corporate clients, ranging from the White House and the state of Georgia to Intel and Sony, have used the system.
As for design, Linx will work with Memphis-based Simple Focus, the company that designed BealeStreet.com, the LeBonheur Children's Hospital website, and the Orthodox Church in America website.
In a separate but related project, Linx is also working with the city and Launch Memphis to determine how to make public data, such as Memphis City Council minutes, bike lane maps, or neighborhood crime stats, more accessible to residents.
The partners are hosting a "hackathon," where tech-savvy citizens can compete to develop apps or websites using public data, at a date to be determined later this year.
"The goal is to be more interactive and see how we can engage local entrepreneurs," Orrin said. "We want government data to be more accessible to the public."