County website evolving

Orange County's Information Technology group, in conjunction with departmental webmasters and the office of the clerk to the Board of County Commissioners, has developed and deployed a new search tool for our website ( This tool was developed to help the public quickly locate information and services of interest.

To use it, go to, type search terms into the left frame's search window and click "Go," much as you would a traditional occurence search engine. Results will appear in the right frame.

We would appreciate any feedback on this tool. In particular:

  • Is the tool intuitive?
  • Did you quickly find what you were looking for?
  • How does it compare to a traditional occurence search engine (e.g., google, yahoo)?
  • Do you have any suggestions for improving this tool?

Thanks in advance for helping Orange County better serve the public.




Regardless of what document storage is done in the back room, I at least want searchable PDFs posted to the web in a manner that I and the search engines can consume them in the near term.

I hear your points about archiving, etc. and I don't disagree with them. However, It is likely that getting that fully in place will take time and I think much of my PDF request can be done *now* with perhaps less effort than is currently used for scanned docs.


A little off-topic, but have you considered replacing the scrolltext applet at the top of the main page with a javascript or some other method of circulating news headlines? In Mozilla, it tends to freeze the browser briefly until it loads the Java virtual machine.

The search tool, however, seemed to work well for me. I just tried a few test searches and it seems that certain searches bring up a "frequently asked questions" sort of list, which is very cool and I think quite functional. However, it's not perfect. The top result for "public nudity" for example, is "What services are provided by the Public Works department?"

Perhaps we should ask Jason why he was searching for public nudity on the Orange County website? :)

Back when we first got computers at the General Assembly (circa 1983) we had DEC Rainbows with some bizarre word processor. One of my bosses at the time was Senator Monk Harrington. The spell checker constantly wanted to substitute "urinate" for "Harrington".

Actually, I was being quite unfair, and specifically trying to find a search term that would return unexpected or off-the-wall results.

I tried searching for "open container law" and didn't get anything helpful, but seaching on Google for the same string and restricting the search using the "site:" option gave me the right answer as the first hit.
That is entering "open container law site:" into the Google search box. Infer what you would like from the search string, Gerry ;->

Comparing your search to Google in this way might be helpful.
I did like that the results came mostly as useful FAQs that made sense at a quick scan. If only the result were there as well.

On other fronts, I love the GIS features (I know that they are not new, but I still love them better than Google maps).

But I do have some suggestions:
1) get rid of frames and tables and replace with style sheets and XML using blocks etc. this will also allow you to separate the information architecture (XML) from the design (stylesheets) as orangepolitics does for example.
2) as jason has mentioned there are other ways to do scrolling text that are more friendly to all platforms. In general, cross platform testing is a good idea
3) don't tell people to bookmark to get updates. give them a reliable RSS feed instead. we all would have loved to have that for the candidate filings pages ;->
4) the resolution of the county seal is too rough. get a designer to look at better formats or use a more scalable version.
5) do a small client-based user study and how people interact with the interface. select folks who may not be familiar with the structure of your organization. much will be revealed.
6) test your sites for accessibility when and where appropriate. bobby will give you a first rough cut at least.


I mentioned the google site search when I attended the June county technology committee meeting where they presented this.

At the same meeting, Todd proposed a plan to move to stylesheets and also to move to more standard markup. I commented that what they really need is an easy web-based authoring environment for all of the departments. The city school district has moved to this type of a setup and it is quite effective for their target audience. Regarding the markup, I mentioned that I had to use their alternate page because their default index page had java code that crashed Firefox - multiple versions Todd noted that they had changed that about two weeks prior.

I attended the meeting to suggest the following:

1) Develop a plan to archive within 24 hours the audio of the BOCC meetings and work sessions so that citizens can listen via the internet. Later also broadcast the meetings live. I recently sent a plan with the major tasks to the committee for their consideration.

2) Develop a plan where all documents are first class PDFs so that they can be searched by users and search engines. Right now, the vast majority of documents are scanned when they could have been taken from an electronic source document to PDF. This is also an an accessibility issue.

3) Provide an HTTP GET alternative to so that search engines can crawl through the minutes. I created my own in hopes that google would crawl it, but google has not added them to the index (or there would be a lot more results to )


Separating out the search features from document development standards is somewhat misleading. Try a search on 'affordable housing' and you will get a link to the recent (excellent) report. BUT....if you want a finer grain level of information, such as legislation on affordable housing, this new search engine doesn't find it. Since the county (like Carrboro) insists on creating so many documents as PDFs, the finer grain searches will never be successful unless you have very very savvy developers.

For a much better description of the problems with PDF, see

Some of us on Chapel Hill's IT advisory committee have been pushing for more study on document creation standards. It would be great if we could get Carrboro, Orange Co and Chapel Hill to collaborate on such an initiative. The state Office of Archives and History has offered their assistance.


I agree that the there is a better end game than PDF, but on the way to that end game, creating first class PDFs is superior to the graphical scanning of documents to create the PDF. Enabling search engines where I can refine my searches is superior to the "can't search anything" of today. I am merely advocating useful baby steps in the interim. Even when there is some other format to store and search docs, the sites will likely generate PDF for those wishing to download documents. PDFs meet many of my needs when it comes to viewing agendas, back ground materials, and minutes for government meetings.

It sounds like the town and county tech committees should hold some joint meetings to discuss document management strategies, web site authoring and web content mgmt strategies, internet broadcasting and archiving of audio from official meetings, open source exploitation, wireless initiatives, and digital divide initiatives.


Mark--I'd bet a lot of money that the county, like the Town, doesn't teach their secretaries how to engineer the documents to meet your standards. Web access for citizens is an important consideration, but it isn't the only aspect to this problem.

"According to North Carolina General Statutes 121 and 132, every document, paper, letter, map, book, photograph, film, sound recording, magnetic or other tape, electronic data processing record, artifact, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristic, made or received in connection with the transaction of public business by any state, county, municipal agency, or other political subdivision of government is considered a public record and may not be disposed of, erased, or destroyed without specific guidance from the Department of Cultural Resources."

Without a standard file format, many digital documents could be lost to future generations. Right now, the state requires the some paper documents, such as council minutes, be copied to microfiche and stored in the archives in the event of a natural catastrophe (such as last years floods in the mountains). But other documents are still being stored as paper or in a multitude of digital formats.

If we want to maintain 'historical' documents, we need to move quickly to standardize our files. That will improve searchability as well as archiving capabilities (as well as accessibility). Every document created in a temporary form is simply additional work once standards are developed.

Amen to everything that Paul said!

Thanks to all for the feedback thusfar. As Mark Peters alluded, we are looking at making a series of improvements to our web presence and we're looking at the low hanging fruit first. The web search tool is a mechanism we hope will help direct folks, with a minimum of clicks, to a specific web page that addresses their inquiry. We will be evaluating strings that yielded no FAQs style results as well as strings whose FAQs were not clicked on. As we analyze more of these results we should be able to increase the richness of the FAQ returns and reduce user frustration.

As for specific search engine points raised above:

* The "public nudity" search yielded he public works FAQ because, you guessed it, the word "public" was associated with it.

* Paul's note about "public container law" searches is correct, although we feel our main challenge is to understand what the public is typically searching on, hence my statement above on analysis of search strings.

* Paul, regarding your comment "I did like that the results came mostly as useful FAQs that made sense at a quick scan. If only the result were there as well." Could you provide clarification of the results not being there? We tried to ensure all FAQs had links to relevant information.

Thank you all so much for the valuable input. It is an invaluable help in evolving our web presence. Please keep the feeback coming!


-Todd Jones

I meant that Google found the right answer, but the Orange search did not. So even tho the results from Orange were in a very friendly form, I was happier, as a citizen searcher, with the Google results.


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