The way that New Yorkers communicate and connect with one another is changing rapidly, and for government to continue to be effective, it must evolve in parallel. Digital Engagement is the fourth element in the Digital Roadmap, steered by a data-driven, goals-oriented approach. With a monthly digital audience of 7.5 million, the City of New York is committed to serving and informing New Yorkers on their own terms, on the digital devices, platforms and media most familiar to them. In order to constantly measure success and refine best practices across more than 340 social media channels, City government agencies begin their digital engagement plans by setting the performance goal they plan to meet and then research and identify the right technology and tool to reach their constituency and achieve their aims.
Overview of the City's Digital Reach
The City's digital engagement strategy is based on leveraging the social media platforms and digital tools with the highest adoption rates by New Yorkers. Today, those channels include the official government website NYC.gov, mobile texting programs, newsletters, smartphone applications and social media platforms such as Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube.
The total size of the City's digital reach is 7.5 million, with an approximately even split between the City's average monthly web traffic to its destination website nyc.gov (3.7 million) and those who follow or subscribe to its third-party digital media channels (3.7 million). This reflects a significant increase in the number of New Yorkers using social media to connect with New York City government. Since the release of the Digital Roadmap in May 2011, the City's social media audience has more than tripled, growing from 1.2 million to a current peak of 3.7 million social media followers across 340 channels.
Overall, the City's digital reach has nearly doubled since the introduction of the Roadmap, increasing from 4 million in 2011 to 7.48 million in 2013, an increase of 85%.
With over 35 million unique annual visitors, one million pages and thousands of services, NYC.gov is the digital manifestation of New York City government. It is a powerful tool with nearly limitless potential to impact the future of government by streamlining complex processes, surfacing critical information and enhancing the lives of New Yorkers by connecting them to events, programs, services and civic engagement.
With this in mind, the City began a process in 2011 to redesign NYC.gov with an emphasis on usability, consistency, accessibility and scalability. The goal was not merely to meet standards for existing municipal web destinations, but to provide a superior experience that rivals the best-designed, most intuitive platforms across both public and private sectors-and to set a new bar for government websites.
The Reinvent NYC.gov Hackathon
The first step was to convene Reinvent NYC.gov, a hackathon described in the Open Government section that drew over 100 volunteer participants and produced 12 working prototypes imagining the future of NYC.gov. Technologists were encouraged to approach the challenge with a "blank slate," and their work dramatically reimagined the City's user experience. At the conclusion of the hackathon, a panel of judges from the City and technology community awarded five groups prizes, ranging from Best User Interface to Most Social.
The Request for Proposals
The winning ideas were included as design references in the City's official Request for Proposals (RFP) to redesign the City's website, directly impacting the future design of the site and kicking off the initiative with a collaborative approach inclusive of the City's leading designers, developers and civic technologists. Seventeen interactive firms responded to the City's RFP for NYC.gov, and after extensive evaluation, the City selected HUGE Inc, a digital agency based in DUMBO, Brooklyn, as the highest-rated respondent.
Guided by input from the public, informed by visitor metrics and influenced by the successful customer service approach of 311, NYC.gov has been redesigned to put the user first.
The New NYC.gov
In September 2013, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the new NYC.gov. In line with the priorities first articulated in the Mayor's 2011 Digital Roadmap, the new website is driven by five core objectives:
Through a collaborative process with HUGE, the City identified service priorities, researched website analytics and used informative methods such as card sorting and live usability testing to identify user needs.
Today, the new website reflects that public input and research, featuring enhancements to the following elements:
The ability to locate relevant information is critical to successfully navigating the vast resources of NYC.gov. To that end, the overhaul of NYC.gov included significant optimization of the website's search engine. Leveraging Google Search Appliance, the search tool indexes hundreds of thousands of pages, and following optimization, it now provides more accurate, relevant results to queries and the ability to filter by media format. In addition, to accommodate those with visual impairments, users are able to filter out PDFs, which are not easily accessed via screen readers.
Navigation and Top Content
The website's updated homepage and navigation are based on high-demand content and services to help visitors find what they are looking for right away. The new homepage and portal navigation immediately prioritize links to top content, such as jobs with the City of New York. In addition, the website prominently displays real-time status updates on Alternate Side Parking, waste collection and school status-which together represent the top driver of questions to the City's 311 customer service system.
Look & Feel
NYC.gov's overall "look and feel" has been enhanced to be more engaging and usable. It features a simplified, streamlined design with a brighter color palette, larger images, bigger text size and both live and on-demand video embedded directly on the homepage, enabling the user to easily search, browse information or locate programs. In order to make City information and updates more accessible to the public, images are larger and easier to view, and key facts are highlighted as part of every announcement, accompanied by a direct link to the service, program or agency. Throughout the new design, users are able to more seamlessly share content to social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+, encouraging more New Yorkers to discover relevant resources.
To engage and support all users, the new NYC.gov website is accessible in over 100 languages and surpasses American Disability Act (ADA) requirements. To support translation needs, search engine optimization and the use of screen readers for the visually impaired, all text is machine-readable and all images must provide alternate captions. This means, for example, that the title of a page will not be presented within an image file, which is not recognizable to most electronic screen readers. In addition, the website's greater contrast and larger fonts makes it more accessible to the elderly and others with visual impairments.
Customer Service: The 311 Booker and the 311 site
NYC.gov now more deeply integrates 311 customer service content and functionality into its homepage, reflecting the high volume of web traffic related to 311. Users can now launch a service request or find 311 information directly from the homepage of NYC.gov, whether by browsing NYC Resources or using the 311 Booker. The 311 Booker is a prominently featured NYC.gov tool that expands like an accordion as the user specifies the nature of a complaint, payment transaction or the information request. From the 311 Booker, users can also enter an address to find local resources for that location.
For example, through Local Lookup, entering an address provides:
The 311 Booker is also present on the newly revamped homepage of 311, which also leads with the 15 top 311 requests, dynamically updated via API to reflect and resolve timely concerns as they emerge. Further down the page, 311 offers a useful status bar-a clear and concise dashboard that provides information about status and service interruptions for Alternate Side Parking, garbage collection, schools, MTA subway system and emergency alerts from Notify NYC. At the base of the page, 311 highlights City social media feeds as well as links to download official apps and view the 311 Service Request Map, which presents a constantly updated map of recent 311 requests.
NYC.gov in Emergencies: Keeping New Yorkers Safe
In order to safely and effectively engage the public during emergency scenarios, the new NYC.gov includes a range of features to facilitate communication and the exchange of information.
In the event of severe and imminent emergencies impacting the majority of New Yorkers, the City will temporarily replace its typical homepage with a pared down, simple design limited to content related to the emergency situation, such as travel interruptions, safety announcements and links to resources. To enable the website to load on devices that may have limited connectivity, the emergency layout is devoid of images, and videos are linked but not directly embedded throughout the duration of the emergency.
In order to fully leverage the reach of NYC.gov, during an emergency situation, the headers of all NYC.gov pages will display an alert banner that links to the temporary emergency homepage.
Design for Mobile and Tablet Users
One of the most compelling elements in the new NYC.gov design is its fully responsive framework. This means that whether the website is accessed on a desktop computer, a smartphone or a tablet, on a browser of any size, its look and feel will be seamlessly optimized and easy to navigate. NYC.gov accomplishes this via a single code base, making maintenance more manageable as elements of the website evolve.
Providing a website that is easily viewed on mobile devices is crucial to the success of NYC.gov because a significant and growing percentage of visitors access the City's destination property via mobile devices. Today 25% of traffic to NYC.gov occurs on mobile browsers, and that number is projected to increase as smartphone adoption expands further.
Improving Content Navigability
For more intuitive browsing, the City refreshed the NYC.gov information architecture to reduce redundancy, reflect public requests for content and more prominently feature 311-provided information on a wide range of City services. The new architecture is visible on the homepage and in the NYC Resources section, where the Categories section features easy-to-understand information on the services and programs critical to civic life in New York City. Information is organized by content category, not agency, so that users do not need to know the actionable owner of function to resolve their concerns.
In addition, City content has been modified to make it easier to find and browse a range of resources at a glance. These include the introduction of new, highly visual, easy-to-navigate directories for agencies, programs, social media channels, mobile applications and newsletters. Users can filter by ten consistent content categories, and new social media channels and mobile applications are regularly highlighted. In addition, responding to strong interest in City employment, the Mayor's Office of Operations led the redesign of the City's Jobs section, which brings together all employment-related resources for job seekers in one convenient location. Finally, as part of an ongoing development project, the City's Department of Finance has made it easier to send payments digitally.
Users can also more easily browse and discover public events and activities by borough and interest, taking advantage of the all the City has to offer. Events are mapped using the Google Maps API for accessibility and sharable via social media.
To support civic engagement, the City has also introduced a Civic Toolkit, a resource in checklist form that consolidates a wide range of information and tools that help New Yorkers engage in civic life, from voting and polling locations, to schools and public services.
The City's agencies also have access to a newly designed Agency Template that provides a more modern, engaging look and feel, and a more intuitive navigation. The Agency Template is modular in nature, so that agencies can pick and choose from among a range of design and functionality elements to customize the template to their own needs and goals. Transitioning agencies sites to the new template is currently in progress, and slated for the next phase of NYC.gov, beginning in late 2013.
A Strategic Approach to Digital Engagement: Leadership and Coordination
Greater strategic guidance and organizational leadership, coupled with an organic increase in New Yorkers' adoption of social media, has fueled the growth of the City's digital scope. With the introduction of best practices guidelines, the Engage NYC summit, a policy advisory committee, workshops, style guides and customized consultation, the City's digital content producers have increased their mastery of new platforms and the City's audience has grown exponentially.
For agencies seeking advice, NYC Digital functions as an in-house consultancy, providing one-on-one guidance on overall digital engagement strategy aligned with agency goals, including elements such as social media platform evaluation, measurement tools, online advertising, crowdsourcing and public competitions.
A Starter Kit of Digital Media Resources
To equip agencies for success, when a new social media channel launches, its owner receives a range of helpful resources, including best practices, how-tos and style guides. To support the growth of the new channel, NYC Digital announces the channel and encourages all City agencies to promote it via an internal newsletter and welcomes new channels on the @nycgov channel.
Citywide Social Media Dashboard
As introduced in the 2011 Digital Roadmap, the need for a Citywide social media management platform is crucial to supporting an approach to social media that is coordinated, data-driven and constantly measured. In 2011, as agencies independently used several systems, there was no unified way of measuring social media growth across all of the City's properties, and making it difficult to evaluate best practices and improve. To improve coordination, the City issued an RFP to select a social media dashboard, and vendor Hootsuite emerged as the highest scoring option. Thanks to the implementation of social media management tool Hootsuite, agency social media managers have enhanced tools that allow them to schedule content publication, manage constituent engagement and analyze growth.
In addition, the Hootsuite Citywide social media dashboard has proved invaluable in emergency situations, as administrators and City hall officials are able to more effectively field questions and respond to requests from across City functions and agencies. Through publication tools, it also helps to serve the City's objectives for informing the public in urgent scenarios, by enabling the simultaneous publication of a single message across many different platforms to amplify a crucial update.
Engage NYC Summit
The annual Engage NYC event has emerged as a valuable forum for professional development and the celebration of digital success stories in the City. Now in its third year, Engage NYC convenes approximately 200 digital professionals in City government for a program that features presentations on winning engagement strategies by Facebook, Foursquare, Google +, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube, as well as awards and spotlight videos on standout agency use of social media. The summit is free of charge for all to attend, thanks to generous donations by venue partners.
The City's Social Media Advisory & Research Taskforce (SMART) was first established by NYC Digital in 2011, and features 17 of the City's leading digital media experts. The group meets monthly to discuss social media policy, the approval of new platforms for use, notable recent digital media initiatives and overall City strategy. With a range of agency backgrounds including the Parks Department, NYPD, 311 and the Department of Transportation, SMART members bring great depth and variety of experience to the table. Since the group's launch, SMART has approved six new social platforms for use, finalized Citywide social media protocol for emergency situations, advised on the Digital Roadmap and assisted in the planning of Engage NYC.
User-Centric Social Media and Digital Tools
In line with the City's simple, intuitive approach to social media, in early 2012 Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of NYCgov, a new, one-stop suite of social media channels on Facebook, Foursquare, Tumblr and Twitter. NYCgov curates from across the City's 340 social media channels, sharing crucial information, emergency alerts, major announcements, program deadlines and free events that span dozens of agencies and programs. NYCgov provides an accessible window into City news, supporting greater civic engagement without overwhelming the user. While the City's 340 social media channels provide in-depth expertise on a range of topics from public schools to emergency preparedness, subscribing to all 340 feeds may not be a manageable option for the average user. With that challenge in mind, the NYCgov channel provides a vital link to the City's critical information, edited from among all outgoing information, at a pace and quantity that is easy to consume.
NYCgov channels are located at facebook.com/nycgov, foursquare.com/nycgov, nycgov.tumblr.com and @nycgov on Twitter. As part of the launch, both Foursquare and Tumblr donated significant resources to the City: Foursquare provided the City's "Big Apple Badge" pro-bono, and Tumblr developed a custom NYCgov theme-including a pixelated skyline graphic that changes color based on real-time video feeds of New York City-at no cost. Both Foursquare and Tumblr are locally-based social media platforms with strong followings
Since their launch last year, the feeds on Facebook and Twitter have grown to over 100,000 followers each. Foursquare has more than 56,000 friends who are able to view tips and lists on how to enjoy New York City's public spaces, and the City's Tumblr blog has more than 34,000 followers.
In addition to investing in the City's own social media channels, making it simple and seamless to share content from NYC.gov is crucial to New York City's online engagement strategy. Thanks to a pro-bono donation from local startup Bitly, the City's website NYC.gov now has its own custom link shortener via Bitly: on.nyc.gov. Link shortening is important because most specific website URL addresses are too long to share on platforms such as Twitter, which imposes a character limit on content.
With the City's custom link shortener, instead of a generic brand, official content is clearly identified as affiliated with the City of New York from the outset. In addition, Bitly provides a valuable analytics tools that help digital media producers for the City of New York identify high-demand content and learn which social media platforms are most conducive to social sharing - enabling City communicators to custom-tailor efforts for efficiency and effectiveness.
To date, City employees and site visitors have created over 160,000 Bitly links, and since launch users have clicked more than 1.5 million times on nyc.gov Bitly links.
Months after the introduction of the Digital Roadmap in 2011, the City launched its first App Hub, now featuring 14 official City apps available in iOS and Android. The most popular apps include ABCEats, which enables New Yorkers to instantly look up the health inspection grades and records of restaurants nearby, and NYC 311, which accepts the most common 311 service types and allows users to look up the status of previous requests.
Official Apps from the City of New York
"Made in NY" Discount Vendors
NYC City Hall
NYC Stuff Exchange
Teens in NYC Protection+
You the Man
In addition to the opportunities afforded by digital channels for ongoing civic dialogue, the City has launched its own "meetup," a group that convenes in-person to discuss shared interests. The @nycgov meetup group, available at meetup.com/nycgov, has over 700 members and focuses on digital strategy and policy input.
To date, the in-person @nycgov meetups have drawn hundreds of participants across the City, engaging New Yorkers with diverse backgrounds and levels of technology fluency on the topics of the Digital Roadmap: access, education, open government, engagement and technology industry support. From Staten Island to the Bronx, Queens to Brooklyn, participants have suggested powerful ideas and thoughtful feedback on the City's initiatives, and their work will help to shape New York City's overall digital strategy.
Originally established in 2003 as a toll-free telephone hotline for locals to report non-emergency concerns and ask questions about civic services, today 311 processes over 19 million requests per year. 311 is both a powerful tool for navigating City government, and one of the earliest examples of crowdsourcing; providing valuable insights into the needs of New Yorkers by analyzing request data.
Since the launch of the Digital Roadmap in 2011, 311 has added support to new channels that embrace the changing way New Yorkers communicate. To connect to 311, New Yorkers can:
Specifically, 311 now responds to all Twitter messages directed at @NYC311, shifting to Direct Message (DM) when personal information is required. In addition, digital services have been enhanced as new request types, such as noise complaints, have been added to online channels. 311 also released an Android smartphone application and upgraded its 311 iPhone application to accept more service types, look up the status of previous service requests and receive Alternate Side Parking alerts if desired.
Online, 311 has begun to pilot live chat functionality for select service types, leveraging best practices from the world's largest digital customer service platforms. And via the new 311 webpage, New Yorkers access an even clearer, simpler interface for resolving their needs, as described earlier.
In addition to coming to where New Yorkers live online and creating more choices for engaging with the City that reflect the preferences of constituents, these digital improvements improve customer service and efficiency across the board by reducing wait times for phone service.
Altogether, today 15% of 311 requests are processed digitally, a significant increase over 2011, when 4% of requests were processed digitally.
SMS as a Tool for Engagement
In addition to 311, a number of City agencies including the Department of Education, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Human Resources Administration (HRA) have begun to use SMS short codes to engage their constituents. Based on informal surveys to its clients, HRA found that nearly all New Yorkers have access to either a smartphone or feature phone, making SMS an extremely accessible means of communication.
One example of SMS in action is the "TXT-2-Work" program. For New Yorkers who receive cash assistance, food stamps or temporary housing, TXT-2-Work provides real-time alerts on local job openings that match their field of expertise. Previously, it could take up to 12 days for a job listing to reach a potential applicant; now New Yorkers receive notifications within hours. Today over 18,722 HRA clients are subscribed to TXT-2-Work, and in addition to job alerts, subscribers benefit from personalized responses to their questions.
Digital Crowdsourcing and Engagement in Emergency Situations
When Hurricane Sandy descended on New York City, rapid communication was critical to disaster response efforts, keeping the public informed and providing an invaluable window into the needs of New Yorkers. Throughout Hurricane Sandy, digital engagement played an unprecedented role in response and recovery, reflecting both record levels of public adoption of social media and the coordinated efforts of City employees. Hurricane Sandy also built on the lessons learned during Hurricane Irene, and since the launch of the Digital Roadmap in 2011, the City has instituted policy and strategy changes to support engagement and crowdsourcing in emergencies.
Thanks to the Citywide social media dashboard, in emergency scenarios senior City government staff are able to more effectively field and assess concerns from the public across hundreds of social media channels at a glance. All City channels from Twitter and Facebook are loaded to the platform, enabling administrative users to view all incoming comments and input from across the City's digital community in one view. In addition, users can track specific keywords or hashtags to identify concerns such as power outages or flooding and publish reports reflecting trends in mentions over time.
As the City's digital staff encounters recurring questions, the City may issue public announcements from official social media feeds, or the Mayor may include them in press updates. For specific, personal questions, the City's digital teams may respond directly via Facebook or Twitter; during Hurricane Sandy the City answered over 300 questions on Twitter alone.
To ensure complete messaging consistency across its 340 social media channels, the City of New York also activates an emergency scenario social media protocol in disaster situations. This protocol centralizes all approvals of outgoing content, involving senior legal, operations and communications staff to ensure accuracy amid rapidly changing conditions.
Even with the increased oversight, City agencies were able to quickly and effectively publish content throughout Hurricane Sandy, sending over 2,000 tweets. The public response to the City's digital engagement was resoundingly positive. Messages included one from @ninanyc on Twitter that, "Twitter = #1 thing that kept us informed during the blackout. Super useful to get @NYCMayorsOffice tweets as texts." Another user, @visitordesign expressed, "credit to @nycgov for being so responsive to people looking for info. hard to imagine a personal resource like that 10 yrs ago."
Quantitative data also shows the positive reception by New Yorkers. Over the two weeks surrounding Hurricane Sandy, the City saw record growth in its digital communities, gaining nearly 200,000 new subscribers on social media and reaching a peak Facebook reach of over 320,000 as audience members shared content with their networks.
In addition, the City streamed live video of every Mayoral press conference and update, later providing access to video on-demand via YouTube. The public viewed those videos almost one million times throughout the course of the storm.
The pro-bono support of technology companies and nonprofits during Hurricane Sandy and other emergencies has been crucial to serving and informing New Yorkers. During both Hurricane Irene and Sandy, Twitter donated promoted tweets to @NYCMayorsOffice, enabling vital messages to reach hundreds of thousands more people in New York City. During both storms, the City also worked with the Google Crisis Response group, sharing geographic data related to hurricane evacuation zones, shelters and other resources that the Google team integrated into its public Google Crisis Map. Through the municipal data-fueled interactive maps developed and promoted by Google, the City reached at least one million more individuals, more than doubling its reach.