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Introducing: Honolulu Answers & Write-a-thon

Early on Saturday, July 28, more than 55 city employees and community members came together to write content for the City of Honolulu’s new beta website – Honolulu Answers.

From the ground up, Honolulu Answers is designed to be people-centric, rather than government-centric. While the existing Honolulu.gov website has a wealth of great information, people find it difficult to navigate and challenging to find the specific information they’re looking for, as is the case with most government websites.  Inspired by Gov.uk, we wanted Honolulu Answers to be fundamentally focused on what citizens want to know.

Honolulu Answers takes a different approach than many city government websites.  In live user testing with residents, we found that people visiting Honolulu.gov weren’t there to browse for content; they were there to find an answer to a specific question. So Honolulu Answers places Search functionality front and center, giving website visitors what they want from the get-go.

Starting with the most frequent questions resident ask, which we gathered from the city’s Customer Service Department as well as from Honolulu.gov’s website analytics, we designed “Quick Answers.” Quick Answers are pages that contain just one answer to just one question, so people searching for specific content can find the information they need as quickly as possible. From here, people who have the time and inclination for further reading can branch off into more detailed information contained in “Guides.” Guides are coming soon, and they’ll provide a deep dive into areas like Motor Vehicles, Public Safety, and Moving to Hawai’i.

Honolulu Answers is not only driven by citizen questions, it’s also driven by citizen-focused writing. When we started this project, we said we wanted the writing to be as simple and approachable as asking a neighbor a question. What better way to deliver that than to involve citizens in writing the content?

Write-a-thon questions

To this end, Code for America and the City and County of Honolulu decided to experiment with a new type of event, a “civic write-a-thon.” On Saturday, July 28, more than 55 residents and city employees came together at The Greenhouse to collaborate in researching and writing more than 120 answers to questions. It was inspiring to see the warmth, vigor, and passionate energy with which everyone participated: as the write-a-thon came to a close, several people took questions home as assignments to work on.  The collaboration amongst groups of people who don’t usually have the opportunity for it – city staff from different departments, state employees, and residents – in a very supportive environment felt like a big step forward.  As Shari Tamashiro, a Honolulu resident said, “This is a great idea for a web resource, and I even got up early on a Saturday morning just to be a part of it.”

Some examples of the questions answered were:

The answers written are now being reviewed by the city for accuracy. Once approved, the answers will be published on the website, and each citizen author will have a byline next to the Quick Answer he or she wrote.

Honolulu Answers is open source, and we hope it becomes a useful citizen-centric template for other cities. In addition, we think this is the first-ever “civic write-a-thon” (do let us know if you’ve heard of another one!).  If you’re interested in doing a write-a-thon in your city, we’ve posted a how-to guide for you.

In the meantime, for a great summary of the Honolulu Answers write-a-thon, watch Honolulu resident Ryan Ozawa’s video recap. And please get in touch with either of us if you have any other questions!


Author’s note: Liz Hunt co-authored this post.

Photo credit: Burt Lum

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