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Published December 02 2012

North Dakota Legislature's 'antiquated' website revamped

BISMARCK — In his former job as director of the North Dakota Taxpayers Association, Dustin Gawrylow kept tabs on more than 60 bills during the last Legislature, a job he said was made laborious by the Legislature's “completely antiquated” website.

“It made it as difficult as possible for an average person to actually go in there and look for something,” said Gawrylow, who ended up paying $400 for a subscription to a bill-tracking service run by North Dakota's university system.

Now the site has been revamped for the first time in more than a decade, a month before the Legislature's 2013 session begins. It will be getting its first intense workouts this week, when lawmakers meet in Bismarck for a three-day organizational session.

It will let users to follow the progress of individual bills as they get House and Senate committee hearings and votes. Legislation will be searchable to find particular words or phrases.

Visitors who want to know the names of their legislators will be able to find them by punching in their address and ZIP code.

“The old site was confusing,” said Kyle Forster, the information technology manager for the Legislative Council, the North Dakota Legislature's research arm. “Basically, the new site is a fairly streamlined design.”

Many of its features have long been common on other legislative websites. Gawrylow said South Dakota's legislative site has had archived audio of proceedings for at least five years, something that North Dakota's legislative website has lacked.

The redesign is part of a more comprehensive effort to make the Legislature more accessible to North Dakotans outside the Capitol.

Forster said both the House and Senate will have improved video coverage of their daily floor sessions, at which bills are debated and voted upon.

Two cameras have been installed at the front of the House and Senate chambers to show lawmakers as they speak, while a third, placed at the rear of both chambers, will show the presiding officers and front desks. The video will be indexed to allow North Dakotans to watch speeches by individual lawmakers and debates on specific bills.

Previous sessions have offered video coverage that was streamed over the Internet, but cameras in the House and Senate balconies showed most lawmakers at awkward angles, and coverage was not archived or indexed.

Jim Smith, the Legislative Council's director, said the website redesign cost about $150,000, while about $154,000 was spent on the chambers’ video cameras and accompanying software.

The website had not been redesigned since 1999, and the information was “very randomly placed,” said Andrea Cooper, a Legislative Council services specialist.

Her goal, Cooper said, was to design a site “so an 80-year-old grandma could come on and figure it out right away.”

Before the new website was unveiled last week, the council's offices would get frequent phone calls from people frustrated about being unable to find information, Cooper said. Those calls have tapered off.

“Everyone says it makes more sense,” she said. “It's easier to find things.”

State Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said users of the previous website “needed to do a lot of clicking around” to find information.

“As a legislator I became really familiar with the process,” Mock said. “But as a member of the public, you really don't know where to go. It really wasn't that well laid out.”

Online: http://www.legis.nd.gov/