Community Web Portals

Web sites need information and organization

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 05/15/2008 - 07:41

I recently had to do some research work and had to visit about a dozen Web community and higher ed Web sites. The higher ed sites were community colleges and small four year colleges. Uniformly, all the sites were quite bad. Basic information like street addresses and phone number were either missing or hard to find. Different parts of the sites looked different and had different navigation buttons in different locations. Many pages with the right titles lacked useful information in the body of the page.

The community sites often had very little information about the community. Many of them simply had a few links to other sites, like local government and tourism. So it was actually quite difficult to learn anything useful about the communities from the community Web site.

Search engines index and rate sites based on the kind and type of information on the site, and ignore images. While good graphic design is important for the user experience, it is not enough. Web sites today are a primary marketing tool for organizations and communities, and yet, based on my experience, many well-funded organizations and communities spend little or nothing on what could be their best marketing tool. Communities that will quickly spend tens of thousands of dollars on color brochures are reluctant to spend a few thousand dollars on a high quality Web site that has a worldwide reach.

Most early business relocation research is now done via the Web, and if your community does not have a cluster of well-designed sites--community portal, K12 schools, higher ed, tourism, economic development, community groups--your business attraction efforts may falter.

How does $15/month broadband sound?

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 04/27/2006 - 09:27

While at the Digital Cities conference in Reston, Virginia earlier this week, I was able to get some detailed information about Vasteras, Sweden, where they have implemented the kind of open service provider communitywide broadband I advocate for communities in this country. Vasteras is a medium-sized city of about 80,000 people. In past eighteen months, they have run fiber to 7000 homes, 23,000 apartments, and 2000 businesses.

The system is run as a completely open access network--any qualified service provider may offer services over the network, and they have eighty-six (86) service providers. There are several options for Internet access, starting at a full 3 megabit (symmetric--3 meg up and 3 meg down--not offered by any cable or DSL provider in the U.S.) for $15/month. You can get a full, symmetric 100 megabit service for $45/month (about what most of us pay for 1-2 megabit cable or DSL service).

The open access system uses a single community infrastructure that offers freedom of choice for subscribers (pick from 86 different services), increased competition, and much lower costs because service providers can sell services at lower prices because the cost of the infrastructure is shared across the entire community.

Robert Kjellberg, the Managing Director of the effort, said the system has created many new work at home opportunities, helped improve the delivery of local government services, provided new opportunities for distance learning, and that local schools have been able to make much greater use of the Internet for teaching. He said that every K12 student now has their own online portfolio of school projects.

The take rate for the network has been 50% among homeowners and 50% among businesses, and demand has been very strong. They continue to hook up new customers on a weekly basis.

Service providers have been very enthusiastic, and Telia, one of the incumbent providers, sells Internet access over the network for half the price that they charge for DSL in other communities. Kjellberg emphasized that the city does not sell any services and does not compete with the private sector--all services offered over the network come from private sector providers. The service providers pay a small portion of their revenue to the city, which is used to finance debt, expansion, and operations.

Here are some links to the project. Note that as of this day, a Swedish kronor (SEK) is worth about 13 cents USD, so you can take the Swedish service prices and divide by 7.4 to get the equivalent in US dollars.

Vasteras has won numerous awards for its network and has attracted worldwide attention because it has world class broadband at affordable prices. How about your community? Instead of just one or two highly restrictive and expensive broadband offerings, would it not be better to have homes and businesses choosing from 17 plans starting at $16/month?

Community Web Portals: The Benefits

The benefits of well-designed, modern community portals are numerous. Among these are:

Increased traffic for other sites in the community. There is a popular myth that a successful community portal is a "problem" because it may take traffic from other established sites in the community. Anecdotal reports suggest just the opposite. A good community portal, by its nature, drives more traffic to other sites in the community that the portal links to. So there is no reason for the managers of established sites to oppose a community portal effort. In fact, they should support one, as it will likely increase traffic for them.

One way this works (increased traffic for other sites) is by using RSS feeds. The community portal, by centralizing local RSS feeds from other sites in the community, makes it easier for residents and visitors to find out what is going throughout the community; the RSS feeds increase traffic at the sites that publish an RSS feed. Your important community sites (e.g. Chamber of Commerce, tourism site, local government site) do publish RSS feeds, don't they?

A good community portal, with other sites in the community pointing to it, makes it easier to find the community on the Web. The community portal has the potential to score higher in the search engine ratings because of it's broader and inclusive approach to community information. Search engine rankings and the location of the community in the rankings is especially important for tourism efforts and for businesspeople who may need to travel to the community.

The community portal is a recruitment tool for families and Knowledge Economy workers, business owners, and entrepreneurs who want small town quality of life. All of these potential residents are using the Web to research places to live. The community portal can be a valuable asset in attracting Knowledge Economy families (often with six figure incomes), or it can be a strong negative (if your community site is years old, out of date, and dusty from lack of use). The community portal is a critical part of any economic development effort. The portal is more than a listing of local community groups and meetings; it is a vital part of your economic development toolkit to project an image of a dynamic and "connected" community that has a savvy, tech-ready workforce and an informed citizenry. Businesses wants to move to communities that are comfortable with technology and that are clearly making modest investments to stay current.

The community portal markets the community broadly across a wide variety of interests. The portal has a dual purpose. One purpose is to inform residents and businesses within the community about current activities, groups, and commerce. But the second, equally important activity is to let others, from outside the community, learn more about the community itself. As a marketing tool, the community portal becomes an important part of tourism efforts, a way to get travelers and visitors to stop and spend money on lodging and meals, to market local businesses to customers outside the community, and to project a modern and vibrant image to the world. The community portal is the way the rest of the world sees your community. So if you want your community to be seen as vibrant, attractive, and great place to live and to work, then the portal Web site must be of the highest quality to project that image.

A feature-rich community portal with multiple ways to inform community members about what is happening in the community (e.g. community calendar, discussion forums, RSS feeds, blogs, automated reminders, etc.) has the potential to increase civic participation. Formal and informal studies in Blacksburg, Virginia and in other communities with active community portals indicate that when residents have the right information at the right time, they tend to get more involved in the life of the community. In other words, they are more inclined to get out of the house and attend community meetings and to take part in community and civic activities.

The community portal is also a tool for workforce development. With features like blogs for all users and the ability to distribute posting privileges, many people in the community have the opportunity to acquire new skills by using the community portal as an interactive, hands-on learning tool. As residents acquire these skills, their marketability in the workplace increases and the community becomes more attractive to relocating businesses as well as to businesses already in the community.

The community portal project can become an ongoing technology resource for the community at large, constantly reviewing new Internet-based services like RSS news feeds, blogging, Voice over IP telephony, and other developments. The portal can provide evaluations, links, and resources on the site itself to help residents and businesses in the community make informed decisions. As part of the training and education component of the effort, short courses and seminars can be offered on topics of interest to the community. This regular and constant focus both on education and innovation continually increases the capacity of the community to make appropriate technology and telecommunications investments to address a wide variety of public and private needs.

Finally, the community portal project can save money. By becoming a valuable technology resource in the community, residents, local businesses, and local government, over time, should spend less on technology and get more value for the funds that are expended. As an example, the community portal can help raise community awareness about the value of bandwidth aggregation. As more and more bandwidth users in the community use that information to pool buying needs, the community benefits directly by having more funds available for core needs and objectives. Indirectly, increased investments, especially by businesses on the core business rather than on overhead, will, over time, lead to increased economic development, new job opportunities, and a community that is vibrant, livable, and prosperous.

A PDF version of this paper is attached for easy download.

Community Web Portals

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/14/2005 - 09:39

I've been getting a lot of questions lately about community Web portals. There is a lot of confusion about what they are, the benefits of having one, and how to go about setting one up and running it.

I've created a new information category called Community Technology Topics, and over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to be writing on various aspects of community Web portals to try to answer some of these questions. I've been involved in designing and managing community Web Portals since 1993, and will try to share my experiences with you. Some of the issues I will be discussing will include:

Stay tuned to learn more about this important community resource.

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