Remember 1998? If you were online then, you probably accessed the Internet with a dialup modem and surfed the web at glacial speeds using Netscape or Internet Explorer. The words "You've got mail" carried deep, psychological power. So did the idea, before the dotcom bubble burst, that you could get rich by building a web business catering to people who wanted to buy cat food and chew toys.
It all seems so long ago now, such an innocent and romantic time! But until Wednesday, if you wanted to set the Wayback machine to the midpoint of the Clinton Administration, you could simply visit the City of Los Angeles' online presence. It was the 56K dialup modem of major metropolitan websites. (In fairness, techs had tweaked it periodically over the years.)
That's all changed as a result of its first full-on, rip-the-guts-out rebuild. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cut the ribbon on the city's redesigned website — LACity.org — and introduced a companion mobile app for the iPhone and Android devices. The venue for these proceedings was highly symbolic: Google headquarters in Venice.
Fifteen years ago, the second most valuable company in California by market cap (Apple is number one) was just getting started in Palo Alto. Now it can digitally stage-manage an announcement like this through its social network, Google+. The media showed up at press conferences in 1998. Now it goes to G+ Hangouts.
"Through out new website, Angelenos, small business owners, and tourists will have a portal to explore all the city has to offer," the Mayor said.
The new site does look significantly more contemporary, although it splits the difference between a design that anyone who's been online in the past five years would recognize and understand with more out-there sites that attempt to fully integrate social media, like Facebook and Twitter.
That said, visitors can use the new site to keep track of tweets emanating from various city offices. There's also video on demand, of for example City Council meetings. L.A. has made a serious effort to streamline the service aspect of the site and eliminate the labyrith of clicks the old site forced users to navigate. If all you want to do is pay your power and water bill, the new site makes that much easier.
A spokesman from the Mayor's office said the redesign - most of it done by City Hall staff - cost about $500,000.
The mobile app, dubbed "My LA 311" — a reference to the phone number that L.A. residents can call for city services — cost $130,000 to develop. (Numerous other U.S. cities have their own "311" apps.) 3Di System, a Downtown L.A.-based firm, handled that part of the overhaul. The app, available in the Apple App Store on March 18, enables users to make service requests, pay bills, and use geolocation and mapping services to navigate the sprawling City of Angels.
"I kept tasking my staff to get into the 21st century," the Mayor said. "This app will put us in a position to be right at the top of the [national 311] heap."
The Mayor cited bureaucratic obstacles to redesigning the website and launching the app sooner, as well as the economic downturn. "You have to remember that we had the worst recession since 1930s. It was also thought that the cost would be much greater than it turned out to be."
The Mayor's office also announced that it will be hiring a Website Content Manager for the site and the app, and that "version 2.0" of the app will have in Spanish version.
I got a preview of the app at the event. If you're an Angeleno dealing with daily life in the city, it's definitely going to useful. Because the mobile site updates constantly, you won't have to wait another 15 years for the most accurate information.
City Council member Joe Buscaino, who joined the Mayor for the event, said that the city won't wait as long to refresh the new site. "You can't just redesign the website, declare mission accomplished and not worry about it for another 15 years."