How do you take one of the top government websites in the nation and make it even better? Optimize the site for mobile devices, according to Phil Billingsley, general manager of the Information Network of Arkansas.
Billingsley said Arkansas.gov, which has been the go-to online portal for everything relating to Arkansas government since 1998, won the Best of the Web Award (state portal category) at the 2011 Web and Digital Government Achievement Awards.
"It's actually been two years since an update," he said. "We normally do an update every year, but after winning the award, we waited a year. So we did this update in May 2013."
The push for a going mobile was driven by loads of data available to the web managers, such as Claire Bailey, the state's chief technology officer.
"Arkansas has some of the highest rates of mobile usage in the country, so it was critical for us to ensure that the state portal provides the best information regardless of what device the citizen is using," she said in a press release.
Billingsley elaborated, telling The City Wire that the number of visits to Arkansas.gov from mobile devices had "actually doubled in the last year." He said the push for mobile also came about due to a CDC study that ranked Arkansas as being the state with the highest number of wireless-only households.
"With the explosion of smart phones and tablet devices, the number of people coming in on a traditional desktop or laptop is going down. All the stats we see is proving that out."
The newly-designed site, which rolled out to the public on May 1, was built to be a "responsive design."
"It's technology that recognizes the device and renders the screen formatted best for that device, whether a smart phone, tablet or desktop," Billingsley said. "Some of the mobile sites you go to, you lose the content, but that's not the way with ours. No content is lost.”
An example he cited included a user scrolling down the page and seeing a map showing state services available in different areas. While the map would be "clickable" using a desktop or laptop computer, it would respond to a mobile device with a slight change.
"If you try to scroll down on a tablet function … we designed a function to tap it to use it and then tap it again to continue scrolling (down the page). It was designed for a tablet or a smart phone, so that function is not needed on a desktop."
Another section of the website to see improvements is the search function.
According to the press release announcing the re-designed site, Billingsley said "nearly 70% of visitors to Arkansas.gov use the search feature first." Because of that, the team working on the re-design spent a lot of time working on algorithms to customize the search function for Arkansas residents, versus using a standard search function powered by other search engines, such as Google or Bing.
"The portal's enhanced Smart Search connects to several databases simultaneously, and a unique scoring system summarizes the results on a single page," the press release said. "The search also ranks some results higher based on the user's geographical location."
The newest, and perhaps most intriguing function, goes back to Arkansas' ranking as the state with the most wireless-only households.
And while it is geared to mobile web users, the feature itself does not even require users to log on to Arkansas.gov. Instead anyone looking for information can send a text to 501-246-8783 and get a response.
"For example, if you were looking for who the attorney general of Arkansas is, you could text that and it would give you the information and the contact information," Billingsley said.
The service, which he said is still being tweaked, will continue to be monitored to ensure the best results are made available to users of the service.
Intended to be simple and easy, Billingsley said he hopes it can provide a valuable service to Arkansas citizens, including letting know about state holidays, elections, polling places and how and where to conduct state business.
"It's a lot that you need and it's easy. You don't have to open a browser, you just text your question and we do our best to reply based on some algorithms build around that service. As far as we know, we are the only state that gives some sort of text response back to our citizens."
The site re-design, valued at more than $180,000, was completed at no cost to taxpayers utilizing a self-funded model with Arkansas' eGovernment partner, the Information Network of Arkansas, according to the press release.