Saturday, April 11, 2009

Suggestions For The CHSRA Web Site

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.


Happy Easter everyone! The metaphor of the Easter egg is apt, since the authors and the readership of this blog keep finding nuggets of information buried in the various tomes CHSRA has compiled over the years. To its credit, the Authority has published them on the web for anyone to download. In some cases, it has reformatted documents to make individual chapters easier to download, but there is always room for improvement.

In particular, we have moved beyond the campaign phase leading up to the November election to the project-level EIR/EIS process. This is the period during which the decisions regarding how the route will be implemented city-by-city, county-by-county will be made. The objective is to seek comments on what alternatives should be studied, but many members of the public are still bewildered by this legally required but bureaucratic process.

I'd like to focus the discussion on this particular thread narrowly on CHSRA's web site, i.e. on the scope and modalities of its online communications and their place in the planning process going forward. Please think of this as a brainstorming session with each comment a Post-It - or tweet, if you prefer - that only has room for one succinct idea or response to one contributed by someone else. This will help me summarize the thread so I can send your collective input/feedback to CHSRA in a format they can choose to utilize.

Here's a list of questions to get the ball rolling:

  1. Do you consider the web to be CHSRA's primary tool for communicating with the general public?
  2. Should the entire CHSRA web site be bilingual (English and Spanish)?
  3. Which resources on the web site have you found useful to date?
  4. Which do you consider gimmicks at this point?
  5. What were you able to find easily?
  6. What took a lot of digging?
  7. What were you not able to find?
  8. Does the web site need a dedicated search tool?
  9. What took too long to download for your liking?
  10. Should old versions of documents remain available forever?
  11. Were you able to obtain official information from CHSRA in another way?
  12. Was it easy to reference information you obtained in e.g. blog comments?
  13. Is the status of the project and its many components articulated clearly enough?
  14. Is the status of CHSRA's planning integration with other government agencies articulated clearly enough?
  15. Do you have specific requests for fresh text or multimedia content, including audio recordings?
  16. Do you have specific requests for additional resources and links to tools that would allow you to create sketches or other content yourself?
  17. Should CHSRA host a public discussion forum, blog or similar?
  18. Should CHSRA provide a means of uploading reader content or links to web resources that it may choose to publish after review?
  19. Should CHSRA maintain a list of or links to job openings, including those at consultants it has hired to work on the project?
  20. Where would you expect/want others to look for this fresh content on the CHSRA web site?
  21. When would you like CHSRA to publish it, relative to dates on its calendar?
  22. For how long should it be considered "fresh"?
  23. How would you like CHSRA to keep improving its web-based communications going forward?
  24. Would you consider it taxpayer money well spent if CHSRA hired a team dedicated to supporting its web site?
  25. Should CHSRA have a formal customer service desk with tracking etc. that would - within reason - ferret out or create specific project-related content (e.g. page references, excerpts, sketches, sound recordings, Google Sketchup 3D models)?
  26. What's missing from this list?
For your convenience: CHSRA web site (opens a new tab or window)

15 comments:

timote said...

I have a couple points/requests (which I'll leave in one comment if that's ok):

1. Better discussion of what the different options for grade separation, including pros/cons, costs (order of magnitude style - high/medium/low say). This should include visual representations, including real-world pictures of that method done well.

2. "State of the world" - what the agency is doing right now and what the deadlines are. Examples:
- All public meetings listed clearly on the front page or easily found.
- All public comment deadlines listed clearly on the front page or easily found.
- For each segment, rough schedule: EIR process, construction process, opening date, etc.

3. Address implementation concerns. There is a FAQ on the front page, but it is more for selling Prop 1A. That needs to move to addressing public concerns about noise, frequency, eminent domain, etc. While there cannot be specifics as of yet, even a general discussion of the options and process for addressing these concerns is vital.

4. My overall opinion is that the website isn't friendly. There is little plain-text, well organized information - it is just a dumping ground of documents that needed to be produced to get this far with some sell pages (visualizations, route map, faqs). Not that this style of website is uncommon, but given the ground-breaking nature and high potential for citizen concerns, it seems time to refresh and reorganize.

Rob Dawg said...

I'd love some count up/count down clocks.

Count down to first revenue service. Count up on miles built and under construction and spending.

Avery said...

I think they should take a look at denver's fastracks project (rtd-fastracks.com). there is detailed info on everything happening, every bridge design, current progress (construction photos) etc. They have done a really good job at keeping everything open to the public.

Rafael said...

@ Avery -

I also like the web sites for the almost-completed Canada Line in Vancouver BC and the one for Sacramento Intermodal Transit Facility, a project that hasn't broken ground yet.

Both expend some effort on advocacy, but the focus is on the planning and construction process itself. What's are the remaining options? How will they be decided? By when? By whom? What will the impact be on specific neighborhoods? Etc.

Granted, both of these are a good deal smaller than than the California project, but there is no limit on the number of pages you can put up on a server or, on the number of ways visitors can find the specific information they care about at that particular time.

Bianca said...

Great topic. Poor communications from CHSRA do it no favors and give the opposition more energy around the idea that there is some grand conspiracy, that the Authority won't listen to the public and is trying to do stuff on the sly. The better it communicates with the general public, the better. The web is certainly a good tool, but it should not be the only one. The Authority should use a multi-pronged approach- tv, radio, newspapers in addition to the web. It has a link to sign up for a mailing list, and I signed up ages ago, and I don't recall ever getting an email directly from CHSRA. They should put that to better use.

As for making the site bilingual, I think that information about local meetings, deadlines, etc., absolutely should be in both Spanish and English, but given the already voluminous amount of text available on the site, translating all of it is simply too cumbersome. I say this as a former professional translator: translating highly technical materials accurately is time-consuming and requires a great deal of expertise. It will be very expensive for the CHSRA, and the possiblity of translation error grows with the complexity of the material. Having Spanish language materials available on the website with translation errors creates a slew of new problems for the CHSRA.

The library needs more work. The documents need to be broken down into smaller units with better descriptions of the contents, so that things are easy to find. This is another area where transparency will pay dividends, and making things easy to find and user-friendly would help mitigate the government-bureaucrats-aren't-listening-to-us argument. Maybe a search function where you could type in your zip code or town and it would give you an index of all the places where there are mentions of a given town or intersection? As to keeping outdated documents available, I think they should have an "archive" where things that are clearly outdated or superseded can be accessed, but segregated in such a way that it is not confused with current documents. Perhaps make documents avaiable, but with a "superseded" watermark. There's some sense in removing old and outdated items, but again the optics are important, and taking stuff down would just leave them open to claims they are hiding things from the taxpayers.

The CHSRA should not host a public discussion forum. Dear Lord no. If they did, they would have to hire full-time moderators, and that money can better be used elsewhere.

Avery said...

As with the denver fastracks, they had a couple forums at one point (one for west construction and northeast rail) that both were overran by spam and lawyers defending the few that were protesting the relatively few property acquisitions along the route. Definitely not a good idea as these don't attract the majority that are in favor of rail developments that stop by just to check on progress, but rather the opposite type.

yesonHSR said...

Isnt the web site just a general state goverment edition? look like the others and even links to the Govs personal page

Clem said...

My gripe is that you can't web link to the major documents in their Library. Individual PDF chapters, yes, but not the whole Bay Area / Central Valley EIR/EIS page that you get when you click on their link. It's some javascript magic and not a proper URL.

Having a better overview of the tiered environmental review process (and schedule) would be useful. A lot of people don't understand it.

political_i said...

timote summed it up very well. I think there needs to be some more visualizations for grade separation alternatives once preliminary engineering work is complete.

Brandon in San Diego said...

I believe the opinions posted here ae very valid. Howver, it is my understanding some activites of the CHSRA have been delayed or postponed due to budget considerations.

Rafael said...

@ Brandon -

that's why I waited with this post until CHSRA got it's $29.1 million to keep operating through the end of June. I suspect some federal money will become available before long as well.

$500k goes quite a long way when it comes to remodeling a web site, e.g. breaking down documents into smaller units, eliminating pages with frames that prevent direct references to the content within them, improving the Google Map of the route such that you can refer to a particular pan and zoom setting, drawings (elevations + cross-sections) that explain technical terms like "embankment", "cut and fill" etc.

I'd also like to see all the resources relevant to each segment of the route accessible via a separate index page. The general public doesn't have time to skip all the part of voluminous tomes that are not relevant to the project-level EIR/EIS process in their neck of the woods.

Most of the meat already exists, it just needs to be sliced and diced in a more user-friendly fashion.

Brandon in San Diego said...

Oh, so you employed some strategic planning in your post. Good.

I think some additional strategic considerations could/should be employed here too; however, I'll hold off on comenting about those now - possibly too fine grain relative to current CHSRA activities.

Concerning the web site, if not mentioned, I'd like to see more history about the project. This is the largest public's work project in California's history. Undoubtably, many will venture to write about it professionally; either as books or as news pieces. Having an available resource would help them AND provide greater assurance against damaging incorrect reporting errors which could potentialy lead project opposition.

Skycona said...

"incorrect reporting errors which could potentialy lead project opposition"

Like something one would read in a blog?

Anonymous said...

They could start by putting information on their website instead of making every link on their home page download a PDF. And the eWorld icons look incredibly amateur.

HR said...

1. Do you consider the web to be CHSRA's primary tool for communicating with the general public? -Yes, yes, yes. They should have a staff, even a miniature version, just dedicated to youtube, twitter, facebook, and modernizing their website with constant updates LIKE THIS BLOG!

2. Should the entire CHSRA web site be bilingual (English and Spanish)? -There have been complaints in Hispanic communities that they have been overlooked because CHSRA is English-dominated. I think it would do them extreme credit to extend this "olive branch" of a bilingual website - but the fact remains that many Hispanic households can't afford internet or even a computer (the younger members of the household go to school or library computers, and they can access this information).

3. Which resources on the web site have you found useful to date? -the animation videos they post showing the train in theoretical areas. Seeing the future that way makes me excited and inspires me to believe in the movement. Something they could offer is more of a commuter's niche instead of tourism - like people who have bicycles - a way to make it easier for them to bring bicycles on board or even push them forward on the stairs.

4. Which do you consider gimmicks at this point? -I'm not sure.

5. What were you able to find easily? -ROUTES! and proposed fares and durations of trips. Extremely cool!!

6. What took a lot of digging? -Deadlines.

7. What were you not able to find? - Real World calendars and events, and user comments (like online polling on what designs should look like, what would be the best route, so on and so forth).

8. Does the web site need a dedicated search tool? -For sure, but it needs to work on tags and keywords before that happens otherwise anything can pop up.

10. Should old versions of documents remain available forever? -Yes, so we can compare them.

11. Were you able to obtain official information from CHSRA in another way? -Just from this blog really...

13. Is the status of CHSRA's planning integration with other government agencies articulated clearly enough? -No.

14. Do you have specific requests for fresh text or multimedia content, including audio recordings? -Audio recordings, interviews, weekly or even monthly updates, a live calendar, streaming video of construction, a gallery of schematics, maybe even a reference to overseas' HSR, bubble text, more video, interactive multimedia like chat function and a chance to communicate directly with the CHSRA staff, also - MORE TRANSPARENCY as far as decision-making.

15. Do you have specific requests for additional resources and links to tools that would allow you to create sketches or other content yourself? That sounds like a good idea. It should definitely be more communal/share-oriented where it's not just some "top appointed panel" but it should reflect users in those communities being affected as well as users everywhere (the best possible option).

16. Should CHSRA host a public discussion forum, blog or similar? YES! This would go a LONG way to propping up the support for it.

17. Should CHSRA provide a means of uploading reader content or links to web resources that it may choose to publish after review? Yes, again this would only give it positive P.R.

18. Should CHSRA maintain a list of or links to job openings, including those at consultants it has hired to work on the project? Totally, that way it reinforces the claim that it "creates jobs in the workforce" - well, what workforce and which jobs? Having a "classifieds"-esque section just centered around CHSRA would eliminate that criticism.

19. Where would you expect/want others to look for this fresh content on the CHSRA web site? THE FRONT PAGE/MAIN PAGE.

20. When would you like CHSRA to publish it, relative to dates on its calendar? -As early as possible relative to those dates.

21. For how long should it be considered "fresh"? Weekly or biweekly for a government sponsered website. I'd prefer daily or even every two to three days, but that seems like asking for a lot. Just as long as it's updated once a week, that should be cool.

22. How would you like CHSRA to keep improving its web-based communications going forward? -All of the above mentioned.

23. Would you consider it taxpayer money well spent if CHSRA hired a team dedicated to supporting its web site? Yes, it is because it would help the pro-argument with evidence, facts, and documentation as well as the ground presence of supporters if it is interactive.

24. Should CHSRA have a formal customer service desk with tracking etc. that would - within reason - ferret out or create specific project-related content (e.g. page references, excerpts, sketches, sound recordings, Google Sketchup 3D models)? -Sounds like a good idea that needs to be fleshed out. A customer service desk is always appreciated.