Bulletin, April/May 2007

The Case of myhamilton.ca

by Brian Detlor, Paul Takala, Umar Ruhi and Maureen Hupfer

Brian Detlor and Maureen Hupfer are associate professors at the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. Umar Ruhi is a Ph.D. candidate in the school. Paul Takala is the manager, electronic service, Hamilton Public Library, Hamilton, Ontario. 

Brian Detlor may be reached at detlorb<at>mcmaster.ca; Paul Takala may be reached at ptakala<at>hpl.ca; Umar Ruhi may be reached at umar<at>umar.biz; andMaureen Hupfer may be reached at hupferm<at>univmail.cis.mcmaster.ca

As governments implement new digital environments as a means of delivering better information services and resources to citizens, the development of rich and meaningful digital spaces that engage and encourage citizen uptake is becoming an increasing challenge. How should managers of these new digital environments go about building an integrated and comprehensive digital environment for citizens? How do managers of these digital environments ensure that the virtual space is robust in its offerings and is relevant to citizens? 

To help answer such questions, let us examine the City of Hamilton’s municipal portal, called myhamilton. Promoted as a supersite, the community portal not only provides citizens access to key government information services and resources, but importantly also facilitates communication and information sharing among participating members. To understand what managers need to do to secure successful implementation of such government digital spaces, myhamilton is used to showcase practical guidelines from key managers involved in the portal project.

The myhamilton Portal
On September 13, 2005, the community of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, launched an innovative new community portal www.myhamilton.ca. The myhamilton supersite is unique in that it integrates the websites of the municipal government, the public library and several community databases and content areas. Through myhamilton the City of Hamilton and its partners are benefiting from a shared content management and collaboration infrastructure while providing citizens with one place to look for local information. The success of myhamilton has been based on the ability of several community partners to come together, develop a shared vision and then work collaboratively to achieve that vision. Now that the site is “live,” effort is directed toward engaging new partners to ensure there is an even broader range of community participation in the portal. Key features and functions include integrated municipal and library services, personalization and single sign-on for secure transactions, comprehensive events listings and extensive search capabilities. Also included are collaboration spaces and tools including surveys, discussion forums and document sharing, as well as webcasting capabilities. 

Guiding Principles for myhamilton.ca
Overall, managers of the project recognize 10 guiding principles as critical to the philosophy, direction and implementation of the myhamilton community portal. These are as follows and discussed in detail below:

  1. Incorporate collaborative tools
  2. Facilitate full integration of content
  3. Perform usability testing
  4. Encourage active engagement from multiple partners
  5. Deploy effective governance
  6. Learn from others
  7. Follow good project management techniques
  8. Formalize performance assessments
  9. Invest in marketing and communication
  10. Engage participants on a regular basis

Principle #1: Incorporate Collaborative Tools
In the case of myhamilton.ca, asynchronous applications such as discussion forums and collaboration spaces for content sharing are being used to encourage regular interaction between local government and citizens, regardless of their location. The collaboration tools on the portal are being used in two ways: 1) for interactive elements on the main portal and 2) for closed spaces or extranets used by groups to communicate and share ideas. Surveys and discussion forums are integrated within the portal, while collaboration spaces available over extranets are available for channel partners to securely share documents, establish shared calendars, exchange ideas and manage access to their own spaces on the portal. While content on these extranet-based collaboration spaces is not generally available to non-authorized users, authorized users can log-in through their standard portal account which can be used for any number of individual extranets. 

As one would expect, distributed administration of the local collaboration space was important to ensure that such an architecture of technologies could work together well over time. A local administrator is able to add users and assign permissions to their spaces. To protect the privacy of individuals, local administrators are not given access to anyone’s password. They only need to know someone’s login name to assign them permissions. Standards of acceptable use and other policies apply to the collaboration spaces. Making the collaboration spaces broadly available in the community has raised a number of legal and sustainability questions that have required a significant amount of attention. Investing efforts to ensure proper and sensitive handling of online content and instituting policies to support constituent trust in such tools has been shown to increase participants’ confidence in an online community.

Principle #2: Facilitate Full Integration of Content
Another key factor, which led to the creation of a compelling portal, was developing the site in a way that provided one place to look for information about Hamilton (“no wrong door”). To achieve this goal, the City of Hamilton needed to integrate content from several key sources of information and create a new platform for the community to share information. For example, the City of Hamilton and the Hamilton Public Library integrated their original websites directly into the myhamilton portal. All sites that are integrated into myhamilton preserve their original Web domains so that users can go directly to those sites, and partners are encouraged to promote and market their own resources. However, integration into a common platform allows the myhamilton interface to provide a single unifying window for citizens who are seeking information pertaining to Hamilton. This integration also provides the site with a strong institutional base on which to build community content. For instance, the “City and Government” channel, which is the website of the municipal government, also links to key sites from other levels of government while the “Library Services” channel, which is the website of the Hamilton Public Library, also links to academic and other libraries in the area.

An essential element in getting partners to participate in the site involved ensuring that the source of any particular piece of information was clearly identified so that community views would not be misunderstood as those expressed by the city or other partners. Thus, modifications to the standard template were made to help users understand that they are on the city or library sites when visiting those sections. Managers learned from usability testing that more needs to be done to address this concern. Users of the site often ignore banners and sometimes do not recognize the source of information. The mental model of a portal that provides a space for many community partners to express their views is not yet well understood by many residents. All partners who participate directly in content creation on the portal stand to benefit from a wider audience, but more effort needs to be directed toward reducing confusion of authorship. 

Finally, an additional means of content integration was provided with a single search engine on the myhamilton home page that could search databases and website content across the various channels. For the myhamilton portal, the basic and advanced search options are available across the portal interface where users can search for generic as well as specific information based on criteria such as document types, published dates, source domains and applicability to specific community groups.

Principle #3: Perform Usability Testing
Testing the portal ahead of time for ease of use and navigation was critical in arriving at a final portal design that was amenable to citizen needs and expectations.

In this capacity managers of the project learned that is it essential to have a broad range of community partners working together on portal development because stakeholders’ needs are varied and numerous. During the project the portal development team endeavored to engage a wide range of users. Initial assumptions about “what the portal was” were reevaluated, tested and retested. From Hamilton’s experience there is no such thing as too much usability testing. Hamilton’s team conducted usability testing a number of different ways – from simple card sorting exercises to testing paper prototypes of the site. The team conducted surveys and one-on-one interviews and hosted more formal usability testing sessions facilitated by external consultants, which were captured in digital format for review in the future.

Another key learning that was identified during the usability testing was that whatever the methods used, evaluation plans should include a certain degree of task-based testing on a working prototype. In the team’s experience, earlier usability testing, such as card sorting and paper-based testing of prototype designs, was helpful in developing the site structure and avoiding certain pitfalls. However, it was found that the techniques did not elicit many of the usability issues that emerged when task based testing was done. It should be noted that even when the portal infrastructure is up and running, until actual content resides on it, the ability to mimic a real live environment is limited. The best approach is to test at each step of the way and to continue to test to ensure that the solutions applied are not, in fact, creating a brand new set of problems.

Principle #4: Encourage Active Engagement from Multiple Partners
The active participation and involvement of the portal’s many key partners and stakeholders played a vital role in the design and functionality of the portal tools in myhamilton.ca. Partners’ skills and resources varied, but everyone was expected to make a contribution. At times, the best action for staff was to step back and let the partners move initiatives forward. 

A few examples of the in-kind contributions received from partners on the project were 1) McMaster University’s User Adoption and Uptake Study; 2) Fibrewired Hamilton’s provision of free wireless access to myhamilton.ca; 3) the work of 40 second-year marketing and advertising students from Mohawk College who provided the initial creative advertising platform for myhamilton; 4) the efforts of three Mohawk College summer students who contributed to a new logo and creative copy for the portal, including billboards and print; and 5) Hamilton Public Library’s provision of three temporary project positions (trainer, community collaboration coordinator, and space and training coordinator). Such collaborative efforts and volunteer assistance from partner organizations are regarded as significant success factors in sustainable community informatics projects. 

Principle #5: Deploy Effective Governance
In the myhamilton experience, effective governance was critical to the portal’s success. Furthermore the following conditions were important: 

  • That the governance model reflected the reality of the local situation
  • That the structure, roles and responsibilities of the portal’s governing body were clearly defined
  • That risk, liability and legal issues were understood and communicated early in the process
  • That progress was reported regularly with targeted communications. 

In Hamilton’s case, the operational governance model acknowledged that the City of Hamilton was the lead partner and held primary liability for the portal. Accordingly, the governance model employed was that of an advisory committee. In the future, as community partnership becomes even more important, partners will take on a more active role in the governance structure and process. Having said that, reporting to many different masters should not translate into many different reports, and quality assurance must help and not hinder project progress. In the end, the myhamilton portal team learned that it was best to keep the governance simple, manageable and realistic.

Principle #6: Learn from Others
The ability to learn from other government portal implementations was another success factor. Managers of the myhamilton team offer special thanks to staff working on www.mysudbury.ca, www.elginconnects.ca, www.wellingtonguelph.ca, and www.windsor-essex.info for their advice and support. Their insights helped the myhamilton team map out its plan. In addition, they relied on project partners to complement the myhamilton team’s expertise. McMaster University and Mohawk College in particular played a key role in helping to identify the most appropriate technology.

Principle #7: Follow Good Project Management Techniques
With any large systems development initiative, the adoption of sound project management techniques is critical to success. The myhamilton project was no exception.

To organize the large number of deliverables in the myhamilton project, the implementation period was divided into a number of sections or phases. Some phases (such as reporting and quality assurance) had deliverables scheduled throughout the implementation period. More time was spent on the requirements gathering phase than had originally been planned. While this required the project team to collapse its plan, it also avoided many problems later on. Areas, such as training, that did not receive adequate focus during the requirements phase faced more challenges during implementation. Problems with training occurred partly because the team did not sufficiently define dependencies. Consequently, some training was delivered before the local environment was ready, which required later remedial action to address gaps in knowledge transfer. 

Detailed project plans were another vital element in myhamilton’s success. Managers of the project team found that the communication of summaries and key points was the most effective way to inform stakeholders of project progress. At each stage of the project, the team went through progressive elaboration, expanding on the details of the next steps of the project. In myhamilton’s experience, as the team reached each stage of the project, the elaboration of that phase revealed more tasks to be completed than originally envisioned. To compensate, the project team managers developed a risk management plan that was revisited often. Some of the identified risks changed significantly at different stages of the project.

Principle #8: Formalize Performance Assessments
For a project to succeed, realistic targets must be set and project performance needs to be measured. In the case of myhamilton.ca, managers of the project team were highly aware of the need to establish a framework that ensured all resources were directed toward a unified set of goals and that people at all levels were marching in step toward the same objectives. We started with a list of business objectives that were to be attained within the first year of launch, as follows:

  • 90% of households with Internet recognize the myhamilton.ca brand – 85% indicate they rely on it.
  • 75 key organizations and businesses have Web content indexed by the search engine and assist in contributing content.
  • 15% of referrals to key local organizations and business sites come from myhamilton.ca
  • 50% of culture and recreation registrations are made online.
  • 15% of available e-commerce services (pets, professional service licenses, library holds, small building permits, zoning verification reports) are done online.

Principle #9: Invest in Marketing and Communication
Channel partnerships were critical to both the development and execution of the myhamilton marketing plan. For example, the two domains of hamilton.ca (the original website of the City of Hamilton) and hpl.ca (the original website of the Hamilton Public Library) were integrated into the portal website. Consequently, the considerable traffic generated through these channel partner websites is creating awareness in the local community for the myhamilton portal.

In terms of the preliminary marketing activities undertaken by the project team, significant time and effort was expended to formulate the portal’s brand identity. After careful deliberation, managers decided to promote the website as a “supersite,” rather than a “portal,” to ensure that the average end user understands the idea of a one-stop information gateway to multiple partner channels and services. Similarly, the “life made easy” tagline was devised to succinctly define the mission of the community portal while simultaneously creating a memorable phrase for the target audience.

Principle #10: Engage Participants on a Regular Basis
In order to involve participants in the design and development of the myhamilton community portal, the managers of the project team made frequent use of surveys and public information sessions early on in the planning process. This was followed by meetings with community groups and several rounds of usability testing to retest earlier assumptions. Every stage of usability testing was used to elicit feedback from participants, not just on ease of use, but also to gather information about their priorities and needs.

Our discussion of these 10 guiding principles that facilitated the inception, planning, implementation and launch of the myhamilton community portal project has highlighted the key issues that need to be addressed in a community portal initiative. Some of these principles refer to variables that arise from the environment external to the myhamilton portal initiative and include factors such as available technology alternatives, the form of government support, availability of resources from external bodies, interactions with the public constituents, and collaboration and knowledge sharing with other community portal projects. Other principles reflect the internal aspects of the community portal project and include aspects such as the portal’s governance model, the project management approach, politics and culture within the project team and collaboration among channel partners. By adhering to these 10 best practices, we suggest that managers of government digital environments will be better positioned to build and deploy robust portal solutions that, ultimately, are of high relevance and interest to the community users these portals serve.

For Further Reading
Detlor, B., & Finn, K. (2002). Towards a framework for government portal design: The government, citizen, and portal perspectives. In A. Gronlund (Ed.), Electronic government: design, applications, and management (pp. 99-119). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Gurstein, M. (2000). Community informatics: Enabling communities with information and communications technologies., Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.

Gurstein, M. (2004). Effective use and the community informatics sector: Some thoughts on Canada's approach to community technology/community access. In M. Moll & L. R. Shade (Eds.), Communications in the public interest; Vol. 2: Seeking convergence in policy and practice (pp. 223-243). Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Preece, J. (2001a). Online communities: Designing usability and supporting sociability. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Preece, J., Abras, C., & Maloney-Krichmar, D. (2004). Designing and evaluating online communities: research speaks to emerging practice. International Journal of Web Based Communities, 1(1), 2-18.