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A screenshot of the Town of Smithtown's website as it appeared Jan. 8.

By David Luces

Town of Smithtown officials are looking for input from the community on what they would like to see in a remodeled town website.

Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said in a statement that the redesign of the town’s website is long overdue.

“Many residents have asked that our website be a little more modern, easier to use and visually appealing,” Wehrheim said. “We hope this survey will give those who have suggestions or ideas the chance to share them with our web design team and later the community.”

Smithtown’s website was last updated eight years ago, according to town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo.

Many residents have asked that our website be a little more modern, easier to use and visually appealing.” 

— Ed Wehrheim

“One of the primary things I’ve wanted to see get done was the remodeling of the town’s website,” she said. “I spoke with our IT director and he agreed with the plans to update the website.”

When it came to decide how the town would update the website, Garguilo said the town board considered a few options, including WordPress and other web-design services. However, it decided to stay with CivicPlus, a web development business that specializes in building city and county e-government communication systems that currently maintains the website.

“We have worked with them for quite some time,” she said. “They offered to upgrade our current web page and we thought it would be more efficient.”

As part of the remodeling, the town has put out a survey for residents to complete by Jan. 11.

Kenneth Burke, the town’s IT director,   said the main goal of the survey is to see what residents like and don’t like in a new website.

“We want to address residents’ needs and kind of build a road map of how we are going redesign the website,” Burke said.

The community survey consists of 10 questions that ask respondents to answer how frequently they visit the town’s website, the ease of finding information, what pages they visit the most often and what features they would like to see included in the redesign. There is also a section where residents can give written answers to any special needs they have regarding webpage browsing and suggested changes.

He estimated the redesign would be approximately a six-month project and hopes to roll out the new website in June.

“We want to address residents’ needs and kind of build a road map of how we are going redesign the website.”

—Kenneth Burke

The town has also reached out to local online groups, such as Smithtown Moms, to get their opinions on a new website. Once the final results of the survey come in, town employees will start data mining and compiling content for the new website.

Garguilo said the content creation side of the new website should take about four to five months to be completed because of back-end organizing, which includes record transfers and archival data. The new interface should take less time to be completed.

“We are working on a 30-second teaser video for the Town of Smithtown,” the town spokesperson said. “It will be like an about us video right off the bat when you get on the website.”

Garguilo said that the video will include  important facts and pictures of landmarks to showcase the town.

Another plan the town has is the creation of an app that can work in conjunction with the new website.

“Lets just say a resident wanted to report something — they can go to the app and fill out a form — and that’ll be sent right to our system,” Garguilo said. “This will lead to faster results and hopefully residents are happier.”

To participate, visit www.surveymonkey.com/r/SmithtownWebsiteRedesign through Jan. 11.

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The landing page of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office's new website. TBR News Media

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office has launched a redesigned website at www.suffolksheriff.com. The project was one of newly-elected Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.’s first priorities, saying he wanted to ensure that the public had easy access to information, like visiting and bail instructions; filing for income and property executions; volunteer and intern opportunities; and the wide array of special programs offered by the sheriff’s office.

A look at some of the services available from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office. TBR News Media

“The redesigned website is easier to navigate and contains information on so many of the services that we offer to the public,” Toulon said. “I wanted it to be user-friendly, informative and modern, and I think we hit the mark.”

One of Toulon’s priorities is educating the public about substance abuse, with a focus on prevention. Links to resources are available directly from the homepage.

“I intend to be very outspoken about the drug epidemic, and we will be continually posting information and updates on our website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube,” Toulon said. All of the sheriff’s social media accounts are accessible to users navigating through the site.

The sheriff’s office offers Personal Jail Tours for young people, and a tracking device called Project Lifesaver that provides another level of safety for individuals that wander due to cognitive impairments.

The William Miller House is located at 75 North Country Road in Miller Place. File photo

A Gardiner grant is growing one local historical society’s reach.

The Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society announced the approval of a $4,750 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, which will be used to upgrade and enhance the format and capabilities of its website and social media platforms.

The Daniel Hawkins House was donated to the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society. Photo from Edna Giffen

“The website itself will allow us to better communicate with our members and the general public, and to build awareness about our society and the local history that we are stewards for,” historical society trustee Matthew Burke said. “Once the upgraded website is unveiled, we anticipate launching multiple social media outlets that will seamlessly connect with and populate our website to further enhance our outreach efforts.”

The Miller Place Historical Society was founded in 1979. In 1982, the name was changed to Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society to reflect the membership and the close ties that the two communities have had since the 1600s. Burke filled out the application, emphasizing how upgrading can continue to raise awareness of the historical significance of the hamlets and the buildings the society owns.

The main property is the 1720 William Miller House — the namesake of the town and the oldest house in Miller Place. Its listing on the National Register of Historic Places enabled the eventual preservation and restoration of the structure beginning in the early 1980s. In 1998, the Daniel Hawkins House, located just east of the William Miller House, both on on North Country Road, was donated to the society. It has undertaken a major fund drive to finance the restoration of the historic gem, with the hopes of using it an archival library and exhibition space. Doing this, will also allow for the William Miller House to become a living museum.

Becoming connected with the Gardiner foundation, according to Burke, could help the society in this process.

“We like to see organizations try to become more sustainable by broadening their outreach and embracing technology to make regional history more accessible.”

—Kathryn Curran

“We’re thrilled not only to have received the financial assistance, but to start developing a relationship with the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation,” he said. “Executive Director Kathryn Curran has already introduced us to other members of the Long Island preservation and history communities who may help us.”

Besides handing out the capacity-building grant, networking, according to Curran, is part of what the foundation is all about.

“We want historical societies to link to each other, so if somebody likes going to a Revolutionary War house or Civil War site, they would want to go to another — their success would be built on each other to create tourism,” she said. “We also want them to come to us in the future for funding for different kinds of projects to build their base, their audience and their supporters.”

She said history is hot — noting a rise in genealogy searching and finding different connections to their communities — so she said this is a good time for historical societies to be growing.

“We like to see organizations try to become more sustainable by broadening their outreach and embracing technology to make regional history more accessible to a new audience,” Curran said. “Historical societies don’t like change, and they really need to grow. These investments by the foundation are there specifically to help them become more self-sufficient and have a broader outreach. It’s all about making history an important part of the community.”

A view of the main page of a piece of Reclaim NY’s Transparency Project. Image from ReclaimNY website

Transparency and honesty play a major role in healthy democracies, and now New York State municipalities will have a watchdog tracking their effectiveness, providing feedback publicly to concerned citizens, by concerned citizens.

Last week, Reclaim New York, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established to “educate New Yorkers on issues like affordability, transparency and education,” launched a website designed to rate government accessibility and transparency based on an index of recommendations.

The site is part of the group’s New York Transparency Project, an initiative launched in 2016, which kicked off with 2,500 Freedom of Information Law requests for basic expenditure information to county, town and village governments, as well as school districts across Long Island and the state.

“This is an accountability tool,” Reclaim New York Communications Director Doug Kellogg said. “Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

The new system allows citizens to grade local governments based on 29 indicators, including whether contracts are posted on the internet, there’s access to expenditure records, notices of meetings and the minutes to the meetings are available and contact information is listed for elected officials. The municipalities will receive an overall, objective grade. The grade will indicate which are transparent and law-abiding, as budget information and records access officers need to be publicly available.

“Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

— Doug Kellogg

“Citizens can hold their governments accountable at every level if they have the right tools for the job,” executive director for the organization Brandon Muir said in a statement. “This is a truly unprecedented moment for New Yorkers who want to reclaim ownership of their government. Working with this new site they can make proactive transparency a reality.”

To input data, users must register with an email address. When data is put into the system, it is vetted and sited prior to going live to avoid a “wild west” feel, according to Kellogg. The process of imputing data to extract a rating for municipalities has only just begun. Kellogg said it will take time to have an all-encompassing collection of information.

In May 2016, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district failed to comply with FOIL requests as part of the organization’s Transparency Project.

New York’s FOIL requires governments and school districts respond to records requests within five business days, whether with the information requested, a denial or an acknowledgement of the request. The response needs to include an estimated date when one of the latter two will occur. Denials can be appealed but  not allowed “on the basis that the request is voluminous or that locating or reviewing the requested records or providing the requested copies is burdensome, because the agency lacks sufficient staffing.”

As part of a project it dubbed the New York Transparency Project, Reclaim New York sent 253 Freedom of Information requests to school districts and municipalities on Long Island. It reported on its findings, saying that while many entities complied with state guidelines on processing such public records requests, and after the findings were released, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district eventually complied with the requests.

Entities that it said complied included Suffolk County; Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington towns; Belle Terre and Lake Grove villages; and the Port Jefferson, Kings Park, Huntington, Smithtown, Mount Sinai, Miller Place and Rocky Point school districts, among others.

To become an evaluator for the website or to view data, visit www.reclaimnewyork.org and click on the Transparency tab.