Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Web-savvy consultants have work cut out for them with city’s site

By pushing services onto the Internet that used to require a visit to City Hall, Las Vegas – like other cities around the country – is trying to make life easier through technology.

But also like other cities, Las Vegas’ website is so hard to figure out, many of the services city residents might want to use – downloading documents or filling out forms online, for example – either don’t exist, are hard to use or nearly impossible to find.

Try paying for a parking ticket online while using Safari. Doesn’t work. The site isn’t configured to use Safari. It does, however, use Netscape, a browser that was discontinued in 2008.

Beyond the Sun

It's an understatement to say that three Code for America fellows, asked to help the city solve its technology problems, have their hands full.

They spent a month examining the site, talking to city employees and others. They're used to the problems they encounter. (The city and Downtown Project each donated $160,000 to the relatively new organization. The fellows have been tasked with focusing on issues to help the downtown Las Vegas area.)

“Actually, city staff here were great to work with. Better in many ways (than municipal workers CFA has worked with elsewhere),” said CFA fellow Ryan Closner. “These (city staff) aren’t incompetent. It’s just a problem of being in a bureaucracy. It’s not like they don’t see the light of day. To the contrary, there are a lot of good people working toward good goals who are continually frustrated by the fact that it’s so huge.”

Both Closner and two other fellows, Lindsay Ballant and Lou Huang, were reluctant to point to specific issues because they don’t want to get pinned down. They want to spend at least a month going over what they’ve learned about how the city is using technology.

In general, they spoke of issues that Las Vegas shares with many other cities: the difficulty of navigating the website; how city departments are able -- or many times unable -- to share information; and bottlenecks that need to be changed.

“When you go to the site, you shouldn’t have to know that the issue you’re dealing with falls under, say, ‘building inspection,’” Balant said. “You should be able to go there, present an issue and quickly find how to address it.”

Some of Las Vegas’ issues stem from budget cuts in the past few years. Individual departments used to employ their own tech people. With budget and staff cuts, Closner said, some tech services were consolidated into one department that handles everything. Such consolidated tech services tend to work slower because of the demands from so many departments.

Code for America installs fellows with interested governments around the country. After an initial visit of several weeks, the fellows spend another 11 months or so pinpointing problem areas and figuring out ways to fix them.

Both Ballant and Closner found some Vegas-specific idiosyncrasies, such as confusion among several users about city residency. Most people with Las Vegas addresses, for instance, don’t live in Las Vegas; they live in unincorporated Clark County. The city’s southern boundary generally ends at Sahara Avenue; the Strip, McCarran Airport and neighborhoods surrounding them are in county, not city, properties.

It's become a problem, Closer said, because, in simple terms, it’s frustrating.

“(Residents) call the city with an issue only to find they are in the county, and that creates a poor user experience,” he said

Internally, the city has some issues of “getting systems to talk to each other,” Closner said, and the fact that there are bottlenecks in the form of rules that force an employee to get a special administrator to give them access to data.

With a wealth of data possessed by the city, Closner also sees the chance for the city to build upon the technology ecosystem springing up downtown around the move of Zappos headquarters there later this year.

The city of Philadelphia, for instance, has opened up its database of crime statistics, property taxes, assessments and other information in recent years. That’s led tech-minded folks to map the data by neighborhood, creating information residents there are able to access through the Internet (see AxisPhilly.org for more information).

It will take months for the fellows to figure out what areas to attack first.

“One of the biggest hazards in doing this is coming in with preconceived solutions or developing one prematurely,” Closner said. “We’re going to let the information percolate so we can determine what the biggest win-win will be instead of jumping on the first thing that comes to mind.”

In other words, maybe try using Firefox to pay that parking ticket online, at least for the foreseeable future.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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