The last time the city of Berkeley redesigned its website, in the spring of 2008, the City Council had just sparked controversy for condemning a Marine Corps recruitment office downtown. Barack Obama was pulling ahead of fellow-senator Hillary Clinton in a contentious Democratic presidential primary. Circuit City and Blockbuster had stores all over the country.
For the past 14 years, anyone who visited CityofBerkeley.info to report a pothole, sign a child up for summer camp or take care of other business has entered a time warp to another era of the internet, where they must navigate blocky, text-heavy pages topped by a row of low-resolution photos depicting local life, a design touch that dates back to an even earlier version of the site.
Pull it up on a smartphone and you get the same thing — there’s no mobile version of the site, which made its debut less than a year after the first iPhones went on sale.
But later this spring, 14 years after its last refresh and more than five years after the project to upgrade it began, a new city website is finally set to go live.
“The design is much more intuitive,” city spokesman Matthai Chakko said. “The content is written to be much more accessible.”
The site will have a fresh look and updated menus that should work much better on mobile phones, Chakko said, though he declined to share any previews of the new design. Chakko also did not provide a specific date for when the updated site will launch, saying the city expects the debut to come within the next two months.
Problems with the current site are more than just aesthetic, he said, so the updates go beyond “a fresh coat of paint.”
Residents have complained that the “encyclopedic” current website has too much historical and background content, making it hard to find the more practical information they need, Chakko said, so city staff have rewritten every page of the site with the goal of making it clearer and more useful.
Behind the scenes, the site’s outdated systems have created a lot of extra work for city staff if they want to add new information or change pages — a problem that has been magnified over the past two years.
“During the pandemic, it [has been] particularly hard to use because information was changing so rapidly, and it required so much work to make updates,” Chakko said.
In addition to a new content management system and other upgrades, the site will no longer be hosted on a city server, which should ensure a disaster such as an earthquake won’t knock it offline.
Berkeley started working to update the website in early 2017. Back then, city officials set the goal of having a new site online by the end of the year.
Instead, it took a year to put the redesign project out to bid, and another year for the city to start working with Campbell-based website designer Rolling Orange in March of 2019. Berkeley’s $569,300 contract with Rolling Orange runs through 2024.
City staff and the contractor made progress on the site in 2019, Chakko said, but the emergence of the pandemic slowed them down; while some work continued through 2020, it took until the middle of last year to fully resume the project. Employees are now being trained on how to use the new site as the city prepares for its launch.
Berkeley has a history of taking its time with online projects — the city launched its official Twitter account in 2015, after spending four years deliberating over a social media plan and policies.
It still doesn’t have a page on Facebook, and Chakko said there are no plans to start one, citing the time it would take to manage and moderate another social media page. Instead, he said, the city focuses on its email newsletter and pages on Twitter and Nextdoor to reach residents.