POWER USER

A municipal Web site proves its value in helping nab suspects

John McCormick

Ever wonder whether other government organizations are spending less but getting more out of Web technology than your office does?

The police department of State College, Pa., recently showed how a Web site could aid response to a pressing law enforcement matter.

Until this year's Governors' Conference, you might never have heard of State College, Pa., or perhaps only of the Penn State University football team coached by Joe Paterno. The town hosts an annual summer arts festival.

Future festivals are now in doubt because there have been two riots during the wee hours. The most recent incident happened July 16. Although it was relatively minor, thanks to quick police action, the local government doesn't want its big tourist attraction to develop a bad reputation.

Many people are carrying video cameras these days, especially at riots. Right after this year's trouble, the State College police received lots of riot footage from visitors and quickly started capturing the images of individuals they wanted to question.

Seen this guy?

Other than asking local newspapers and TV stations to run the images a few times, how were the police to get the pictures in front of the public long enough for identifications to be made?

What they did was post the pictures immediately on the borough's Web site. It was free and fast, and where better to test out the idea than in a college town where almost everyone uses the Internet?

To see how they did it, check out www.gov.state-college.pa.us/index1.htm. Follow the Riot link to find thumbnail images of a number of alleged perpetrators engaged in various acts of vandalism. Click on one and you get an enlarged .jpg image with arrows pointing to the individuals that State College police detective Chris Weaver would like identified.

Don't waste your time looking for me; I haven't been in State College for years.

Lt. Diane M. Conrad, commander of the Investigations and Records Division, told me the postings drew 3,200 visitors. She said the information supplied will prove useful even if no arrests result.

I have no connection with the State College borough, but I commend its Web site as an example of just how powerful and useful a simple government site can be. The same kind of site could be set up quickly and easily by other jurisdictions.

Even before its latest use as an interactive wanted poster, the site carried a lot of useful information for local residents'from lists of government contacts to an explanation of why a local park has mud instead of grass. It saves phone time both for citizens who call and for those who answer the phone.

One problem with the site is that it uses frames. Not every site manager has gotten the message yet about making government sites accessible to all browsers. What the borough did right, besides setting up a Web site in the first place, was to keep the major links extremely plain with high-contrast text, blue and black against a plain white background. That makes it easier for every visitor, not just the visually impaired, to read the text and follow the links.

The images load quickly, even on the wanted-poster page, but most pages have virtually no images to slow loading, just a simple borough logo. There are some elements, such as color background boxes, that make text difficult to read, but the all-important links are high-contrast.

Frame or no frame

One thing that would make this site, and others, easier to use would be an option button for selecting a nonframe version. Artists who go into Web design tend to forget citizens who are color-blind.

Another thing the webmaster did well was to put the main contact address and telephone numbers, including fax and TTY numbers, at the very top and center.

I can't tell you how many times I've cursed site designers who hide this basic information, which is after all the main reason people seek out government sites.

I prefer to get my answers online instead of playing phone tag with busy government workers, but sometimes I know from the start that I'm going to have to talk with someone. I really appreciate not having to search for 10 minutes to find an e-mail address or telephone number.

Although the general e-mail address does not appear with the phone numbers on the opening page, State College has links to e-mail addresses for everyone from Mayor Bill Welch to human resources staff members.

All in all, this is a good example of a government site that has proved its worth in action. Take a quick look at it before you add fancy animated graphics to your agency's site. Flash graphics and similar elements have a place on the Web, but they should convey information that can only be conveyed graphically, not encumber the fast service citizens have a right to expect.

If your agency managers are pushing for fancier graphics, why not set up a page-of-the-month contest where designers can go wild but visitors won't have to spend extra time downloading unless they choose to click on the button?

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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