One obstacle to informed discussion of city issues is difficulty finding the relevant documents and history. That’s because the City’s content management system, SIRE, uses dynamic URLs, which are created by a script at the time you request the document.
Static URLs are what we think of when we talk about webpage addresses: SantaClaraCA.gov, amazon.com or TechBlog.com. A static URL is a unique physical document stored on a server.
Dynamic URLS look like this: sireweb.santaclaraca.gov/sirepub/cache/2/k5fi2o5jkwewuad1zfchqwqr/74875804032016103529895.PDF.
With dynamic URLs, pages don’t exist until they’re requested. One template is used to generate all site pages from content stored in a database. This reduces the effort to create and maintain the site and allows non-programmers to post and edit content. All of this is critical when there is a lot of fast-changing content. For example, it would be impossible to maintain the City’s website if every unique page had to programmed.
The disadvantages are many, however. The most obvious is that dynamic URLs aren’t humanly readable or remember-able, and almost impossible to copy correctly. But you don’t really have to worry about that because of the ‘dynamic’ nature of the address.
The URL that’s created on the fly is deleted a short time after. So if you use the link I send you, you’ll just get a broken link message: “The resource you are looking for has been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.” This means you can’t bookmark a page or share content links.
Dynamic URLs also aren’t indexed as easily or found as quickly by search engines, which helps explain why it’s so difficult to find things on the City website. This means lower click-throughs, search rankings and, ultimately less traffic. The bottom line is that fewer people will get your message – whether it’s about a truckload of new shoes at DSW or an important city announcement.
Content management systems typically use dynamic URLs, but there are several methods for rewriting them, making them appear to users and search engines as static URLs, and preserving external links and bookmarks. For example, the long incomprehensible URL above could be rewritten as santaclaraca.gov/04032016/planning-meeting-video-streaming.
If you found the report, it would tell you, “The current City Council agenda management system … is at end of life. Consequently, the system has experienced reliability and interoperability issues in the past year …”
“… Adding Planning Commission meetings … could put the existing system and consequently the City Council agenda management system at risk. The City Clerk’s Office has requested funding in the FY 2016-17 CIP budget to replace the system … Staff is currently working with SIRE to evaluate and, if possible, quantify the risks of proceeding under existing conditions.”
This difficulty isn’t because of the City’s IT capabilities. It’s because of the inherent nature of systems. Over time, systems accumulate changes and always become more complex. Much of the change and complexity is undocumented. And the people who understand the legacy system (and still have the obsolete programming skills) are gone.
It’s monumentally more difficult, risky and disruptive to migrate a functioning legacy system to a functioning new system – a “brownfield implementation” – than it is to do a “greenfield implementation” of a new system.
One estimate is that 75 percent of software project effort goes into integrating and migrating the existing systems and operations rather than deploying new capabilities. Fewer than 30 percent of system implementations are on time, on budget and meet requirements, according to the Standish Group, which has been analyzing software projects for 30 years.
The City has been using the SIRE system since at least 2003 – at least that’s the oldest Council agenda on the website.