Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Steve Signell: A Recreation Web Portal Fail

PortalFailThe Adirondack Recreation Web Portal was released at the end of January with much back-slapping and horn-tooting from Governor Cuomo and other involved parties.  Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that this web ‘portal’ falls far short of expectations.

In an Almanack post last October I described the project and outlined some of the expected functionality of the new site, including what I described as “a strong mapping component, rather than the menu/catalog driven approach used by most Adirondack recreation sites.”  The opportunities afforded by modern online search and mapping technologies presented an incredible chance to build a truly useful, fun-to-use, map-based virtual gateway to the Adirondacks.

Unfortunately, I Love New York’s Adirondack Regional Tourism Council (ARTC) and its partner Adworkshop have squandered this opportunity, along with more than $100,000 of taxpayer money.  After obtaining the contract though a series of backroom deals,  Adworkshop has produced a ‘portal’ buried on the ARTC’s Visit Adirondacks website (how about ‘visitadirondacks.com/recreation#search_form’ for a catchy name?).  Essentially a reshuffling of functionality that already existed on that site, the ‘portal’ is yet another endless labyrinth of drop-down menus, lists, and tabs.  The mapping functionality is buried and hilariously lame, as is the search bar, which returns bizarre results.  A search on the phrase ‘hiking’ within 20 miles of Long Lake returned 3 results: a cross-country ski trail in Tupper Lake,  the Santanoni Trail Register in Newcomb, and the Cedar River Campsites in Moose River Plains, more than an hour’s drive from Long Lake.  Try it for yourself and see what comes up for your favorite Adirondack town.

Sites like this actually do more harm than good– they massively undersell  the Adirondacks by claiming to be an exhaustive resource and then failing to show potential visitors what’s really available.  Why should it be so hard for someone considering a visit to Long Lake to learn about Castle Rock, the Owl’s Head or Goodnow Mountian fire towers, or  Coney Mountain? Unfortunately, there is little chance that the information in the ARTC database will improve– municipalities and people with local knowledge still have to use the same onerous process to update data that was in place before the ‘portal’.   After leaving the web ‘portal’ the user is left with the unpleasant feeling of having searched aimlessly through a poorly labelled filing cabinet– hardly the impression I’d want to give for a place as full of exciting possibilities as the Adirondack Park.

I wish my company had been allowed to submit a proposal for the project.  I spoke with three members of the committee in charge of the project  about why the project was not put out to bid.  Brian Towers (AATV), Ron Ofner (ARTC) and project coordinator

Kim Finnegan all said in separate conversations that they simply decided that AdWorkshop was the only organization that could accomplish the task on their schedule.  I don’t understand how they could possibly know that without soliciting proposals. It is disheartening for an entrepreneur like myself to realize that the game is rigged in favor of entrenched entities like AdWorkshop that (apparently) don’t have to  keep up on new technology because they know state funds will keep filling their trough no matter how hard they try.

Adirondack Web MapI believe the Adirondacks deserves better.  After realizing that the recreation web portal was not going to come close to what I’d envisioned, I decided to produce an alternative.  Over the last few weeks I’ve developed a website that represents my vision of what a web portal should look like:  adkwebmap.com.

The site isn’t perfect, but I think it is fun and easy to use.  It is mobile-friendly and has type-ahead search bars that allow users to quickly zoom to trails, towns, summits, museums and more.  There are multiple maps with all kinds of layers.  On some maps, users can contribute to the maps using a ‘comment’ tool.  Best of all, the maps will always be changing and improving.  I am currently working with several towns to help them manage their own map data which will feed directly into adkwebmap.com, as well as maps embedded on their own web sites.

I would like this to be a grass-roots project that enriches the Adirondack experience for users and empowers the smaller towns and businesses to harness the power of interactive maps in their marketing.  I encourage you to try it out– feedback appreciated, as always.

Steve Signell

Steve Signell

Steve Signell is the owner of Frontier Spatial, L.L.C., an Adirondack-based company offering mapping and data services. He splits his time between Schenectady and Long Lake, where he punctuates his time at the computer with stints on the fiddle and banjo.

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26 Responses

  1. Bill Ott says:

    Steve,

    I was in the Web-Portal for about 10 seconds. Are you actually saying the state paid for this crap?

    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, Ohio

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  2. Steve Signell Steve says:

    Yes, more than $100k. And I’ve been told by several sources that they were just approved for a second round of funding to the tune of $80,000. Again, with no RFP or competition of any kind.

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  3. Matt says:

    A “Web Portal”. Right… Who is vetting these ideas? Have the well-meaning folks who spearheaded this taken a good look at Google Earth lately? Wow. Sadly, this is really just the tip of an iceberg of publicly funded contracts to politically connected consultants(bid free!) that ultimately have little to no use beyond making nice articles about how something is being done to help the Adirondack economy. Of course AdWorkshop was happy to take the money for this, so we can’t really fault them. Like so many other unsustainable dead-end marketing efforts, this one will soon be forgotten and the cycle will repeat itself. It’s a shame. Meanwhile, real grassroots efforts to actually improve and sustain recreational opportunities around the Adirondack Park persist on a shoestring and thousands of hours of volunteer efforts, ensuring that there will be something worthwhile to put into that special(and very expensive) portal that no one will use. I hope the plug gets pulled on this. Don’t throw good money after bad.

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  4. Justin says:

    Steve, you did make an awfully nice and easy to use map – I look forward to seeing it get fleshed out!

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  5. Dick Carlson says:

    Steve – excellent write-up and I totally agree. This can get lumped in with many, many other “tourism” websites – of course paid with taxpayer dollars. Many are trying to reinvent the wheel and failing. Here is a partial list…
    http://www.firstwilderness.com/
    http://www.adirondackscenicbyways.org/ (I love that each town has a “mechanic on duty” listed under services)
    http://www.iloveny.com/ (go ahead just try and use it to find a hike).
    This is all further duplicated with every chamber site, village/town site and county site all vying for the tourist eyeball – with many holes, misinformation, poor site design and broken links.

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  6. Linda says:

    As a fellow grassroots and shoestring effort, to provide quality content for outdoor recreation enthusiasts and to entice visitors to come to the Adk Park, I can certainly appreciate the frustration that is being voiced here. We work to continue to enhance our AdkTrailmap.com web map, adding more value and content each year and offering it freely to all tourism groups throughout the Park, to take advantage of using it/linking to it – yet many of these groups are “not able” to do so. Equally frustrating.

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    • Paul says:

      Linda and Steve,
      It looks to me like both of the sites you guys have put together are just an extension of the interactive mapper made by the DEC?

      Where dose this data come from?

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      • Linda says:

        Our site was created initially at the request of the Central Adirondack Assoc to promote their region. Our multitude of data sources are posted right on the website. The DEC data is only a part of what we use. Much of the data came from the individual communities.

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    • Tim says:

      AdkTrailmap? I just tried to find fishing on the map and I guess there is only fishing south of Blue Mt. Lake — ??? That kind of content is very misleading and certainly has no “value”. No wonder the groups are “not able” to link to it. The won’t is more like it…

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      • Tim says:

        Same with biking and birding. AdkTrailmap should better be named SOUTHERNADKTrailMap.

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        • Linda says:

          I appreciate that you looked at the site and for your feedback. We just rebranded the name two weeks ago and continue to build out the content. If I could wave a magic wand, I certainly would. The research involved to find quality content is totally volunteer and paying client work always comes first. Do you have suggestions for sources for birding and fishing? (I have quite a bit of road and mtn biking to add in, just isn’t done yet).

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  7. Paul says:

    Not sure exactly what the “task” of the site is supposed to be.

    Seems like a lot of unnecessary work. Why have a lame description of something like Whiteface when you can just link to their site for a better description?

    The maps you have made are good. But is the idea to have an interactive map or something else?

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    • Steve Signell Steve says:

      Not sure which site you are referring to in the first part of your comment, but my reasons for making the adkwebmap.com site are several: first, I wanted to make a map that I would actually use myself while exploring the Adirondacks. (I do this for a living so it wasn’t a great deal of effort.) I like being able to easily search for things, and see my current location on the map. I also believe very strongly that small Adirondack towns have a good deal to gain by promoting the great recreational opportunities in their communities. Only they know where the good stuff is, what restaurants just opened up, etc. THEY should have control of that information and not have to rely on ARTC to provide it for them. Thankfully, technology has reached the point where this is very doable. adkwebmap.com will give those communities who choose to go that route another place to promote their towns. Lastly, I wanted a playground where I could publish novel analysis & research relating to the Adirondacks, such as my Hamlets Visualization. There will be more of those to come.

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  8. dave says:

    Full Disclosure: I build and manage large websites for national organizations including, occasionally, on behalf of government agencies.

    That caveat aside… I am not having as negative a reaction to this web portal as everyone else. I don’t have a problem with the concept or the implementation (the price, is another thing). I’m not sure it is something I would use, but then I don’t think I am the intended audience.

    Audience is always an important consideration when building sites. And I think what we have here are two different ideas that appeal to two different types of visitor. For example, I would be more inclined to use Steve’s site. I feel very comfortable navigating around online maps, and I enjoy using them. This may be a product of my age, or what I do for a living, or the fact that my recreational preferences also involve ‘maps’ (hiking, paddling, etc). I spent some solid time playing around with adkwebmap and had a blast. Bringing up the Verizon cell coverage was a whole lot of cool.

    My parent’s however (this is known as the “mom test” in developer circles) would feel less comfortable on adkwebmap. If they were coming to the area and looking for things to do, they would probably be overwhelmed by an online map first approach. They would just want to click on a link that says “Lake Placid”, then on another link that says “hotels and restaurants” and then get a list with some relevant information about the hotels and restaurants in Lake Placid. That is the type of user experience they would gravitate toward, and I suspect there are plenty of others like them out there.

    Ideally, I’d think there would be some way to provide both of these experiences in one ‘portal’ – to cover the different user types.

    Which brings me to a short commentary about that price tag. 100 grand buys you A LOT of developer talent and time. In my experience that type of expenditure should result in one helluva website. Is this portal a 100 thousand dollar effort? It doesn’t appear to be, but it is very hard to say without knowing the details of the contract and the specifications. There may very well have been circumstances – technical or otherwise – that necessitated that price tag or that held back the final product. You never really can tell when looking in from the outside.

    I do agree that – when at all possible – putting these things out to bid, and having a proposal review process, is a better approach.

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    • Paul says:

      Dave, I think I agree and that was part of my question regarding what the “task” was. What Steve is working on and what they may want maybe are two different things.

      If it cost them 100K for this website they (we?) got totally hosed.

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    • Anonymous says:

      Choose your own adventure! “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.” -Lincoln

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    • Following along with the thought of the above- that there are different user groups- some of which might have to pass the “mom test”: Do you think the “moms” out there would like a Google type web-based map at the end of the search of their suggested Adirondack destination- or a good- quality printable static map of where they intend to go? I have observed in the field that tourists are still clutching at and clinging to paper maps as they stop and talk to me from inside their air-conditioned minivans. They invariably end up lost and run right into me! Is there still hope for static, printable, web-to- paper maps of a defined recreational destination? I still think its the best hope of leading people to a specific spot and to help them enjoy it once they get there without getting them hopelessly lost!

      Teresa the Cartographer

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  9. sooth&truthsayer says:

    Kudos to you Steve for making this a publicly discussed topic. However, I hope you are prepared to never, ever get a contract or find work in the Adirondacks, or in the center of universe, Lake Placid.
    This discussion is not about the quality of the website. We all know a better product could have been produced for much less money. The topic that really needs to be addressed is no bid contracts funded with tax payer money in the Adirondacks. Of course, we should also highlight the war lord system of government that runs the Adirondacks. This breeds the no bid contracts and crummy economy.
    I am sorry to tell those who have not had the pleasure of trying to work with the power brokers in the Adks: this is how it goes, no bid contracts are SOP. (Look at ORDA’s recent audit, and the one before that, and the one before that..)
    Have a look at the power brokers, war lords, and their relationships. No naming names, but who runs ARTC? Who parties with Ad Workshop principals? Who runs ORDA and who parties with ORDA ‘leaders.’ Where do those state contracts go? Where do the contractors, lobbyists, and folks who come to town for ORDA VIP events stay? Hmmmm. Tax money funds everything in the Adirondacks, but the Adks are pay-to-play. And if you want to play and don’t have connections or enough $$, you pay with your soul.
    Remember, Adirondack war lords live a very comfortable life; they don’t work very hard, they travel the world on our tax dollars, they get away with producing crap but still make a lot of money, and they don’t have to be good at anything except kissing political you-know-what.
    Interestingly, the current state administration appears blind to the fact that not so deep down, the Adk war lords long for the good old days when they didn’t have to pretend they like Democrats. They don’t worry about election time though, because the war lords keep their old friends, the R lobbyist buddies in the loop with, you guessed it, lucrative no bid contracts!
    A final word of caution is advised because these war lords are not going to give it up their ill-gotten life of luxury easily. Be careful, they are, after all, just thugs.

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  10. Steve Signell Steve says:

    I agree with what you are saying. The inadequate website is merely a symptom of a much larger problem. I am fully aware that by writing this piece, I was almost certainly never get a contract from the entities you mention. However, I was never going to anyway! My theory is that whenever one door slams shut, another one opens up. I know there are many people and organizations in the Adirondacks that need quality work done. If the powers that be can’t provide it, maybe outsiders in the private sector can.

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  11. dave says:

    Just saw this: http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/story/24261/20140306/tourism-groups-launch-app-for-adirondack-visitors

    There was also an app developed to compliment the portal.

    I just downloaded it, and my first impression is positive. It is location aware and offers suggestions based on that. So, while sitting at my desk I told it wanted to see nearby dining and it offered several establishments in my town, and the towns immediately around me. If I choose a restaurant it gives me some general info about that establishment and then lets me bring up a map of where it is, or get driving directions to it.

    There are some notable omissions to the results returned for my area. I am not sure where the data is coming from, but I have to imagine there are plans to improve it.

    This is obviously relevant to this conversation, especially to the question of cost. If this App was included in that price tag, that would go a long way toward explaining it.

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    • Joe says:

      I got the phone app too, just to test it. I agree the phone app is much better designed than the web version. As the database under it gets filled out it will have a lot of value.

      And I also agree with the comment that people will like different approaches. Steve- I was checking your site too and it’s good. I think you should just continue to develop it. The design is not what they choose so, consider it an opening for your model and go for it. No need really to trash the other guy. Your map opportunity remains open to you.

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      • Steve Signell Steve says:

        I just go the app too, and it is much better than the web site. Clearly the spatial database behind the app seems to be working, e.g. when you search for amenities near a town, it returns results that actually make sense. However, the grant was for a web portal, not an app! Not sure what happened with the web portal… seems like at the minimum, it could have at least have mimicked the app. Perhaps there were two different teams? You and Dave are right in that my site and the app use two different approaches, each with advantages and disadvantages. For example, their app has a whole lot more data than my site, and will work offline. On the other hand, their mapping interface still doesn’t allow you to overlay different layers; you can only view one type of thing at a time, e.g. hiking trails or ski areas. Also, it only shows points, even for things that are actually lines, e.g. trails. I also think new data will flow more easily into my site, but time will tell. Perhaps a detailed comparison would be a topic for another blog post, preferably by a 3rd party! I certainly don’t have a great need to ‘trash the other guy’… I just had major objections to the process, as well as their final web portal product, which I still find woefully inadequate, regardless of the quality of the app. A little competition is ALWAYS a good thing, and I’m sure Linda and myself will continue to develop our products, as will ARTC and the public will end up the better for it.

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