Minneapolis Unwired: Civic Garden Open for Business

June 4, 2008 12:49:01 PM

The Minneapolis Civic Garden/Community portal site is now open for business. This Garden is one of the community benefits in the City’s contract with US Internet Wireless (USIW). USIW is providing hosting and some funding for the Garden along with City of Minneapolis’ Business Information Systems department.

The Civic Garden home page will replace the current USIW login page. It is supposed to open with a page targeted to your location. I’m in Seward Neighborhood and it opened to the downtown Garden. Oops. I’m listed in the Midtown area. We need to fix this.

(Before I go on, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m sitting on a Minneapolis committee that is making decisions around the community benefits in the USIW contract and this includes content for the Civic Gardens. So you’re feedback would be much appreciated and be useful and will be shared with other committee members. What do you think should be in the Garden? I am also a member of the Digital Inclusion Fund Advisory Committee which USIW is funding and provides grants for digital inclusion projects.)

Access to the Garden is free from any Wi-Fi capable computer. You don’t have to have a USIW account or even an Internet connection. If you can see one of the USIW wireless access points in your network, select it and open your browser. From there, you should be able to work your way to your local Garden.

There does not seem to be an accessible URL where you can reach the Garden without connecting through a USIW access point. I hope that’s an oversight. I think the value of this resource should be available to everyone and we should be able to share it with other cities as an example. Can’t do that if you can only get there via a USIW wireless node. (You can access http://www.wirelessminneapolis.org which is a separate version of the Garden and may not be quite up-to-date with the live Garden sites.)

(OK. I played around and this URL might get you to the “live” Civic Garden.)

As far as I know, this is a live site and if you currently are a USIW customer, you should be seeing a Garden page for your area. If it doesn’t open to the Garden, it may be that you have a different home page set in your browser. Play around in your browser prefs or log-off the network and log-in again and see what happens.

Before you can arrive at the Garden, you will need to read a user agreement and sign-off. This is a bit off-putting and it’s written in that wonderful tiny text with loads of legalese. It seems aimed at paying subscribers and not visitors to the Garden. I hope they can get rid of this. Luckily, it seems only to appear on the first access and once you agree, it goes away.

Left side navigation area holds the USIW login fields and other USIW info. This serves to push down what I consider a more valuable link which is the drop-down menu that allows you to connect to other community Gardens in the system. I would have just placed the USIW login fields at top left, then the drop-down, then the other USIW info. Maybe they will change that.

The various Gardens are not directly aligned with real life communities or neighborhoods at this point. They are aligned with geographic areas like downtown, south, and midtown. I think the alignment to official neighborhoods will come later. That was in the original plan.

Center of the page has icons representing categories. (Categories also have text links way down the left side.) Under the icons, there are listings of sort of FAQs under the heading “How do I…” (“sign up for Internet service with USIW”, “find my car”, “find free public access computers…”; that last one links to community technology centers). The right side lists sponsors with links. I’m not exactly sure what a sponsor is but I hope they are giving money to the project.

Category pages have a similar layout with main content in the center.

Clicking Around. There is excellent access to many local resources. I’m checking out the “Learning and Education” category. I can go to the Minneapolis Public School site and even the Center for School Change at the U of MN Humphrey Institute which lists charter schools in the state. I was even able to download a file.

I tried the link to the Minneapolis Public Library site and it is unavailable without paid access. I hope this is an oversight as I can’t imagine not giving access to our public libraries which are one of the greatest resources in the City.

Under “Transportation” I noted that although I couldn’t get to the Metro Trip Planner for Bus/LRT, I was able to access the system transit maps and to even open the major interactive map. Very nice and very useful.

The “Area Neighborhoods” category actually links to neighborhood sites. That’s great. Some links aren’t there or not working but I assume they either don’t have a site or there is a problem linking to the site. Actually, I don’t know if there is much specific information right now on the various home pages. I don’t have time to click through the categories and see if different parks and schools and hospitals are listed depending on the Garden.

The “Area Arts, Culture, Parks & Recreation” category seems to have no free links. I would have thought that parks with home pages would get linked but I keep getting bounced back to the home page when I try to go there.

The “Housing + Community Development” category is missing some crucial information. I tried to find something for renters and their rights. The “Landlords & Tenants” links requires a paid account. The “Housing” link works and there is some information but as I dug down and finally found something for tenants, that particular link required paid access.

“Broken” Links. There are links (like the Library link I just mentioned) that don’t work if you are in free access mode. I understand that the free Garden provides limited access to the Internet. But how they are handling the broken links is very confusing. First you get a flash of a USIW login page and then you return to the portal home page whether the link you clicked was on that page or not. There is no error message that lets you know that the particular link isn’t available in free access mode. This needs to be fixed and you should stay at the page where you clicked the link.

(Just found a real broken link. On category pages, the “Area home” link at the top is not working. This is the main return to the home page so really needs to be fixed.)

This is a great start but I think some critical information could be added. I mentioned housing and rental info above. I also could not find links for paying license tabs or other fees to the state. Something like that would be a real benefit and it saves people having to drive around thus promoting green philosophy. I’m not finding any links to state or US tax forms either. There are some great government links including the state Senate and House of Representatives. It’s a frustrating stroll though because as you click around you eventually hit a link that you don’t have permission to access and then you are dumped back at the Garden home page. Fix that soon, folks.

What I’m not getting into today… lack of RSS/ATOM feeds, no news links or feeds outside of city gov news, underlying HTML/CSS structure, accessibility, and usability.

So I hope that you will explore and point out cool things I missed (or what you think is missing information) in the comments. Usability comments are also welcome. I didn’t go into that area at all and I would love for someone more experienced to take a look. If you write your own review, drop by and leave a link in the comments or DM me a link on Twitter (pfhyper). This is an important civic technology implementation and we all need to look and think as to how to make it even more valuable.

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