Opening routes

Opening routes

Dale Minette tells Mark Chillingworth how he charted the recent re-development of the DOTARS Web site

Federal Government departments can appear large and complicated. Many administer a wide variety of responsibilities to the nation. Greater responsibility necessitates a greater need to communicate well, and the Department of Transport and Regional Services is just one such federal department working to improve its communication.

The Department of Transport and Regional Services' (DOTARS) responsibilities take in every facet of transport in Australia from roads to rail and from cycling to aircraft safety. Outside of transport, the department's responsibilities also cover regional development, local government and Australia's territories.

As the Director, Online Services for DOTARS, Dale Minette recently managed a redevelopment of the department's Web site, which included the introduction of a new content management system and a new approach to navigation using Metadata.

"The primary reason was to improve information discovery by taking away the need for people to know how the department was structured," Minette said of the need to introduce a new information-based navigation structure. Previously, DOTARS had 24 Web sites which were structured according to the different business groups, and Minette said that information was difficult to find.

He describes himself as someone who works with and understands information, rather than an IT geek or Web guru. As a result he has been able to look at the department's site and create a new navigation system that delivers the many strands of the department's responsibilities to the user as soon as they arrive at the site. "Only when you enable the discovery of information, will people add value to it," Minette said.

An information architecture was created using Metadata as the highway to success. This new architecture, coupled with the content management system, had to improve the discovery of information, and reduce the costs associated with managing 24 different Web sites. The redevelopment also had to provide the department with a site that could be retrieved and presented as legal evidence if needed, and provide the capacity to restore it in an instant if there was a failure.

By not approaching redevelopment of the site as simply another IT project, Minette and his team didn't get bogged down in the trickery of technology. Indeed, Minette disagrees with people who think content management is about IT. He believes IT enters the equation because today's massive volumes of information necessitate the need.

"I was at a conference recently and a software vendor said that the world's first computer was the beginning of the content management business. But content management started well before the computer," he said. "You don't need a computer to manage content, you need to look at the processes and the people who produce the information." It's a subject Minette is passionate about.

"I have a strong belief that the person who owns or authors the content is not just the best person to manage it, but to describe it," he said of the department's new process for publishing content.

The new process encourages content owners to describe their information using Metadata, and although many areas of the department now publish and describe their own content, Minette's team undertakes a post-publication review for all of the content that goes onto the sites. "They [the authors] may not see the bigger picture, so we have a Metadata expert who pushes the content wider without creating another bottleneck," he said.

Navigating through the problem

DOTARS chose Interwoven's TeamSite enterprise content management system to "empower staff to take ownership of the content."

Previously many of the sites had their own coders and developers, Minette said of content management at the department before they introduced the new system. "We had the normal problems of many people taking responsibility for the technical management of content, while the information itself was often out of date."

"The content management system helps take away the technical part of publishing so that staff can focus on information rather than technology, and ultimately this will help the department reduce the costs associated with Web publishing," he said.

With publishing democratised to the owners, the department has streamlined the process of adding content to the site.

"At the moment, we create very little material directly for the Web, and most of it is pre-approved through well-practised clearance procedures," he said. However, users can now publish material to their Web site themselves, preventing the backlogs associated with the previous publishing process. Minette believes this process is essential to a department like DOTARS, which has such a "wide spread" of information.

The new navigation and content management system has now transformed the main department site into an entry point to the 24 associated sites, which includes important areas such as the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), and the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics.

More importantly, in creating the new information architecture for the site, Minette and DOTARS have created a Web site that now offers multiple ways of finding the same piece of information. As a result, the site's homepage has five coloured columns presenting users with the choice to explore the department's main information pathways including; transport, regional development, territories of Australia, local government and the department.

There is an A-Z Index, an improved Search facility, and links to related and similar pages - all of which are dynamically generated using values from within the Metadata. Of course, users familiar with the site can still use the traditional, organisation-based browsing paths.

These multiple navigation paths could not have been created without strong Metadata, which is now core to the structure of the site. DOTARS uses Interwoven's MetaTagger application, which classifies content according to predefined subject structures and classification schemes, and automatically creates the content summary. The same application enables the capture of Metadata when publishing a piece of content.

Also captured within the Metadata are administrative information such as review and expiry dates, the content owner and DOTARS subject information. Minette explained that the Metadata block sits at the head of each piece of content as well as within an Oracle database. Users navigating the site seamlessly query the database using custom built .NET applications.

Like many government sites, an e-business role will also be developed for DOTARS. The department doesn't have a wide variety of revenue generating products, but does hope to deliver more of its services, including research reports and grants applications, via the Web. Each of the business areas will be contributing to this and together they hope to raise the profile of the site to help Australians discover the wide range of information they have available.

With the site redesign and the new content management system in place, Minette and his team are now analysing the usage and navigation of the site to hone the delivery of information. He said the department was already planning to provide additional, more specific paths for key stakeholder groups. "These paths will be aimed at what people are looking to do on the site - and not just what they're looking for."

The department is quickly reducing the number of technical people required to maintain the many sites, with key staff already beginning to concentrate on the more strategic elements of maintaining a large government Web site.

The obvious benefits of implementing both a content management system and a new and better way of structuring online information significantly reduced the change management issues normally associated with such a dramatic change to way things were done.

"Although we have a long way to go, we are happy with the results so far, and the authors are pleased with the new levels of control and ownership the system gives them."

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