In an age of fake news and Covid-19, governments are tasked with the role of providing accurate, timely information. But government websites can take a long time to build, be finicky to navigate, or present information in a haphazard manner.

“We shouldn’t have to [build government websites] over and over again,” said Li Hongyi, Director of Open Government Products (OGP), at GovInsider’s 2019 Summit. To tackle this, the unit has built a tool to help agencies publish and host websites quickly at a much lower cost.

Lisa Tjide, Product Manager at OGP, shares how Isomer was crucial in helping agencies disseminate information during the pandemic, and the team’s plans to scale it.

Distribute information quickly during Covid-19

Isomer creates a template for agencies to build informational websites quickly, Tjide explains. The team creates and manages the design and hosts the sites – all agencies have to do is prepare the content.

These sites are built with layers of security that prevents injection of malicious scripts and attempts to disrupt a server by flooding it with internet traffic, or commonly known as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, she adds.

Isomer helps agencies set up new websites in a short amount of time, which is especially crucial during the pandemic, Tjide says. It helped to quickly launch the Covid GoBusiness Portal, which provides information for businesses to reopen safely or apply for additional manpower. The team has also supported the launch of the SafeTravel website (safetravel.ica.gov.sg) which helps inbound travellers find out the latest border control measures in Singapore.

The singaporetogether.gov.sg website, which documents citizen experiences in the pandemic, was also set up within 36 hours, she adds.

The tool has saved the government minimally S$2 million (US$1.48 million) a year and gives public officers greater control over their websites, Tjide says.

Agencies have typically been charged thousands just to build simple websites. “We knew that the actual cost of creating a website was far lower than what was being advertised,” she says.

Public officers also had to raise service requests to make simple changes, which could take days. With Isomer, agencies can make changes to the website directly without having to liaise with vendors.

Easy to use, reliable websites

A 2017 study by the Singapore government revealed agency websites have poor usability. There were multiple user experience issues: sites took a long time to load, were not optimised for mobile viewing, and were inaccessible to persons with visual impairments, Tjide explains.

The Isomer team started by offering a set of guides and ready-made web components such as buttons, a navigation bar, and a dropdown menu, she says.

Even so, it was challenging for agencies to make these changes themselves, she explains. The team pivoted to provide a website building and hosting tool, so agencies could focus on providing accurate content.

Isomer sites load more quickly and have much less downtime, Tjide says, from zero to only a few minutes a month. That’s a lot less than non-Isomer websites, which could be down for hours in any given month, she adds.

The tool has allowed government agencies to better communicate with citizens. Its user interface is also accessible to people with disabilities, she adds.

What’s next?

Building a website on Isomer used to be “fairly manual and could get very tedious”, says Tjide, but this has since been automated. Agencies simply need to fill up a form, and the rest would be taken care of behind-the-scenes.

However, agencies today still find it difficult to navigate through the Isomer interface and manage their websites. “Users were making so many mistakes and seeking our help when they were editing their files, which could be case and space sensitive,” she explained.

The Isomer team is developing a new content management system system (IsomerCMS) to simplify content editing into an easy-to-navigate and understandable interface, Tjide shares. They hope this will double the speed of onboarding, from five to 10 websites a month.

The tool was originally built to handle small informational sites. As more websites are onboarded, the team plans to explore how it can be upgraded to handle large websites with thousands of pages, she adds.

The team is also looking into agencies’ requests for Isomer to offer a greater variety of components and templates for different use cases such as events, Tjide says.

Governments need to get accurate information in the hands of citizens quickly – pandemic or not. Easy-to-read, reliable websites will be crucial in helping governments do this.

Feature image by the Open Government Products team