Building a Better Website

By Maria Behan Print this article Print

Health and Human Services improves its online presence.

Developing and maintaining a user-friendly Website is never easy. But when that site’s content comes from a range of government sources—each with its own procedures and proprietary information—things become even more complicated.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) bypassed technical and bureaucratic obstacles to create an easy-to-use yet authoritative source for consumer information on vaccinations. The key to the site’s success is content syndication, which allows content owners to control and update contributions while maintaining a consistent look and feel.

“Before we built Vaccines.gov, information on vaccines was scattered over a variety of sites,” says Dick Stapleton, deputy director of the Web and New Media Division in the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Office at HHS. As a result, a person who was searching for “vaccination” could have ended up at a site that was totally off the mark.

The government’s new vaccine site, which launched in March 2011, combines content and expertise from across HHS divisions—including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and puts that together in sections that are easy to browse, including ones devoted to health travel tips and a “Who & When” vaccine guide.

“The site’s content is organized around consumer need,” Stapleton says. “That’s a significant variance from most other government Websites, which are organized by what I call the bureaucratic structure. A consumer looking for information on immunization and vaccine safety shouldn’t have to know that the CDC does this and the FDA does that.

“When you’re developing a topic-based site, the critical first step is to inventory what content exists, and then marry that to an analysis of the kind of information consumers are looking for. When you put the two together, you look for holes and you fill them—and then you’re off and running.”

But without an innovative Web-publishing strategy, Stapleton and his team might not have run very far. “When you do your inventory and find pieces of content scattered across different Websites, the issue becomes how you bring that in so the person or organization that’s the expert on the content still maintains ownership,” he says.

Traditionally, a Website developer would cut and paste data from the pertinent sources, but that information can easily get out of sync. For instance, if the CDC revises its vaccination guidance or the FDA issues a product recall, the other HHS Websites might have out-of-date or incorrect information. 

To avoid that, “We built a syndication engine that would allow us to bring in content from a number of different sites and keep it current,” Stapleton says. “So, if we want to include material on a particular vaccine from a page on a CDC site, CDC syndicates it to us. Its content appears on Vaccines.gov—with the look and feel of our Website—but CDC continues to maintain it.” If the CDC revises its guidelines, the changes are made automatically on Vaccines.gov.

This is also a good way of circumventing turf battles. “It gets you away from the argument that says, ‘It’s my content; I want it on my Website,’” Stapleton explains. “Content doesn’t leave anybody’s Website. We just bring the most pertinent parts of it together on ours.”

Stapleton and his group at HHS brought in Aquilent to serve as the site’s lead developer. “Aquilent played an enormous role, starting with the wireframe design and the graphic look and feel,” he explains. “Besides developing and publishing the Website, they did all the migration and syndication of content.”

The way the site’s syndication engine works is simple: Aquilent built an API, then set standards for content tagging. “That’s it in a nutshell,” Stapleton adds.

According to Stapleton, “One of the things that a project like this will reveal are discrepancies when one office is saying one thing and another is saying something else. So plan to spend far more time than you ever thought you’d need to get agreement on content.

“Any comprehensive Website requires strategic planning from the beginning. The management of the project is as important to its success as any piece of technology, good writing or pretty graphics.”

The next stage of syndication will enable Vaccines.gov to syndicate the site’s content. “Doctors’ offices and state health departments can take our content and put it on their own Websites, with their own look and feel,” Stapleton explains, “and it’ll all be seamless and invisible to the user. In essence, we’re building a storefront that will list our syndicated content in a way that’s easy to search and share.”

The way Stapleton sees it, Vaccines.gov is the wave of the future. “Government has got to reorganize its content for the consumer,” he says. “The success of that depends on the ability to collaborate across agencies—and syndication is the tool that allows that collaboration to take place by letting agencies share their content without giving up their sites.” 

Maria Behan is a freelance journalist with a background in technology and business.  

This article was originally published on 2012-01-19
Maria Behan is a freelance writer for Baseline
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