Website developement at MBSP



Creating a Website
For An Ohio State Park









By
Chris Ashley
Maumee Bay State Park
10/01/2004


Introduction:
Early in the project we put together a strategic plan to aid us in the process of creating a website for Maumee Bay State Park (MBSP).  This plan kept us from straying away from or intended purpose.
Mission Statement
Establish a web site specific to Maumee Bay State Park and provide a process that other Ohio State Parks can use to create or upgrade their own web sites.
Vision
To provide the public with more comprehensive and current information regarding activities, events, programs, recreational opportunities, accommodations, and services provided by Maumee Bay State Park.

To enable other state parks the vision, plan and implementation process needed to establish and market their facilities and services available to the public.

Goals And Strategies
Increased Customer Awareness
Increased Customer Awareness by reaching a wider customer base through a modernize method of communication, via the Internet.

To provide families and individuals the opportunity to choose and plan a more economical approach for recreational activities than other entertainment.

To provide an awareness of the parks off-season recreational uses.

To provide an awareness of the outdoor experiences unique to an Ohio State Park.

Stable funding
To aid in developing a stable funding base by the increased awareness and participation of the public in Ohio State Parks.

Infrastructure Improvement
Document and share with other Ohio State Parks a successful method of accomplishing the goals of this project.


Introduction continued
The purposes for this project came from many angles.  It was our intention to upgrade the website provided by Ohio State Parks to include information about our park that we, as park employees, would be most familiar with.  To include all aspects of our park on a website created outside the park seemed an impossible task to ask of anyone. 
We also knew that to better keep the public informed regarding activities and events at MBSP we would need to be able to edit the website in a timely manner.  It seemed unreasonable to ask the Parks Webmaster to be responsible for changes that might occur on a daily basis.
In order to accomplish the goals of creating this website, and develop a procedure for other parks to follow, we needed to learn many new things, involve many people, and follow paths that were not obvious when we started.  I personally have developed a new respect for anyone in the website business.
Presented in this project report are the things we learned, our successes and our failures.  It is our hope that by demonstrating all the troubles we have had, that we could save other parks the trouble of making all the same mistakes.  Our hope of exposing your park to the public should not involve reinventing the wheel or making mistakes that have already been made.


Taking the first step

Teamwork is the only way:
Don’t kid yourself, this is a big project.  Putting together a team of people familiar with your park is the “only” way to succeed.  The amount of research and creativity required is more than one person should take on. 
It was determined that four or five team members are best.  These members do not necessarily require computer skills.  One or two of the group members should have some experience with Microsoft Word, however.  This will be important when using the web program you choose. 
Be sure not to confuse team members with resources.  Team members have agreed to donate time and have knowledge of the project and its goals; resources have knowledge of specific attributes of your park but don’t expect to spend a lot of time.  Don’t allow a misunderstanding when asking someone to be a team member.
One problem I had recruiting team members was the reluctance of people with no computer skills to be involved.  The research, design, and photography required are skills that are not computer related.  Almost anyone can contribute and I tried to take advantage of every experience a person could offer.  Another problem occurred when we tried to work around the schedules of the many different types of workers at Maumee Bay.  Some of the best people were never available to work with others on this project.  This also concerns me when it comes to keeping a team together for the years to come.  We must look at the future plans of the team members when deciding whom can best help us.  Some members may only be short term. At least two long-term members are critical to the future your web page.
The our team consisted of:
Racheal Schuiling    Camp ground NRS       Laurel Ashley    Naturalist
Dana Bollin               Park Naturalist             Melanie Driver   Naturalist
Chris Turner             Camp ground NRS       Chris Ashley      Maint. Repair 3

Put together a list of your parks needs:

Now that you have chosen your team, it is time to have a meeting with others in the park that can aid in putting together your parks Internet needs.  These needs include events, reservations, special activities, park attributes, and any other features that will provide information that will help “sell” your park.  Our goal is to reach as many people as we can.
Don’t forget that “someone” represents all aspects of your park.  People that should be asked for help include park manager, campground manager, lodge/golf course manager (if applicable), park volunteers, and maintenance people.  Also known visitors to your park that have tried to find out more about your park can be a big help.  All of these people see things in the park differently and will be quite valuable.

Grow a Tree:
Your team should have a pretty good idea what should be included on your web site.  The next step is to build a tree.  Microsoft Word was used for our tree, but any drawing type program will do.  Simply using a dry erase board works well for brainstorming.  You can use your digital camera to take a picture of the board when you are done.
We grew at least three trees before we had one that we felt represented what wanted.  The tree shown in this report is the third version but still was modified as we went along. An advantage of putting a tree together is you get a feel for how big your site has become.  This tree will also help to prioritize the pages.



Set priorities:
As mentioned in growing a tree, priorities need to be set.  You can begin to help your park by getting at least part of your site done and getting it on line.  Set priorities based on reaching the most people. 
The home page would be first on any priority list.  After that your team would determine your parks most significant attribute that people could use information about and tackle these pages first.  At MBSP we tried to do this, however the value of priorities was not apparent.  We did not realize the magnitude of this project when we started.  Consequently, we did not follow a path that finished pages that should have been done first.  This is one of those don’t make the same mistake we did.

Who’s in control?
Who’s in control is a tough issue.  I will explain what I believe would be best for your park.  However, a manager may feel that he needs to have the final say in what goes into a website.  This was not the case at MBSP.  Our park manager has trusted us to have done our homework regarding rules and determining what’s appropriate.  We do ask for guidance regularly and review pages with him that we determine may be questionable for any reason.
That takes care of content.  What about the mechanics of actually entering the data for your website?  One person should be picked to be the “webmaster” for your park.  This person will be in charge of entering the site initially and making edits as time goes along.  Be sure this person has some computer skills and can make the time available to do the job.  Many hours will be required at first.  Work with their supervisor to be sure this time is available. 
A second person should also be chosen to be the assistant Webmaster.  Sickness or job changes could destroy your efforts if someone is not in line to take over the site.  This person should be trained along with the first Webmaster regarding the program, rules, and philosophy of the website.  Don’t let all your hard work fall apart or your website become old and stale because you lost your Webmaster and had no backup.

Equipment and programs:
This is an area where I personally struggled.  There are many opinions out there about how to create a website.  I bought books, asked other webmasters, and searched the Internet.  All I got was confused. 
My first mistake I made was to buy software to create this web page (NAMO WebEditor #6  $86.00).  Learning this complicated soft ware was more than I could do in the time allotted.  The state prefers MicroSoft Frontpage.  This may have been better but copies were not available from the central office and the price of new program was prohibitive ($250.00).  As I researched this problem my park manager made a suggestion that turned out to be the best solution. 
Each website is carried by a service that will provide you with Internet access and a program to get you started.  This turned out to be the best possible way to put our page together.  There are many services available.  We chose one called Homestead (www.homestead.com). They provide many options and packages to choose from.  There is still plenty to learn and to do, but you don’t get held up publishing your website because of some complicated program that just provides many unnecessary “bells and whistles.
This brings us to the computer you will need.  I know very little about this subject.  I was only able to use whatever was available.  I did learn, however, that bigger and faster is better.  You may only be able to use what you have, but do all you can to upgrade it with more memory.  If possible, a computer dedicated only to the website would be best.  It should only contain the Internet services program, Internet access, MicroSoft Word, and some type of photo editor program.  This will keep memory lose to a minimum.


Developing Pages:
Plagiarize is the key word here.  Remember that putting your park out in front of the public is the goal.  Designing or creating some kind of unique website is too time consuming and may be out of the range of the abilities of your team. This is what I discovered about my own design capabilities.  There are companies out there that have spent thousands of dollars designing their website so why reinvent the wheel.  Search the web and observe what other organizations have done. Note how icons are placed on the page, what colors are used, what fonts etc.  Pick what you like and what appears the most effective and go from there.  Most of the web service programs also have templates and clip art you can use.  These features provide great starter points and can be quiet attractive.  Remember you can always change the design at a later date.
A factor to consider and to always keep in mind as you are putting your pages together is attention span.  The last thing you want is a customer to log on to your site and have it take forever to download.  Keep your pages simple, especially the ones that you believe will be used the most.  Fancy graphics, animation, and pictures with too much detail will bog down your pages down load time.  Remember that most people only have a dial up connection.  

Links internal and external:
Links in a website are used to connect the user to other pages in your site or other outside websites that can help the user.  This is part of the tree you grew.   Remember to always create a link back to the home page on each lower level page.
Links to outside websites must be considered carefully.  There are some do’s and don’ts regarding this type of link.  It would be best if your team contacted someone at central office early in your process that can help you with the official policies and rules of the ODNR.  Our contacts were Patti Barnett and Phil Hoffman.



Meta Tags:
Meta Tags are the key words and descriptions you choose for your site which will affect the public’s ability to find your sight using search engines and directories.  The web service program will provide a place to enter these words.
Consider the following when choosing your Meta tags. Develop a list words related to your park and the contents of your website.  Some possibilities would be camp, camping, fishing, swimming, wildlife, lodging, beach, sledding, etc.  Think about any words that could lead you to the attributes of your park.  They must then be put in some type of order that ranks them according to the values you are trying to emphasize.  If camping and sledding are the focus of your park, these words should be first.

Naming the Website
You would think that naming your site would be easy.  We found at MBSP that someone had already acquired www.maumeebaystatepark.com. This is done with the idea that we would purchase the rights to this name.  It was the opinion of the team that we would no way try to acquire that name.  We decided that by using a well thought out list of Meta tags and the correct web links we would be able to get by with www.maumeebaystatepark.org.
Make your name as easy as possible to type in and remember.  Think about what your park is known as and use this to guide your decision.  Unfortunately MBSP has a very long name but, but it seamed obvious how this should be done.

Moving into the future:
If the team building was done correctly, then moving into the future should not be a problem.  Be aware that personnel changes at your park could spell doom for the website you just worked so hard to complete.  At the very least it could become old and outdated.  Nothing would be worse than a customer showing up at your park for an event that was held last year.
We all know that budget issues won’t allow for the hiring of a Webmaster or public relations person for each park.  A plan to keep at least one backup Webmaster up to speed and ready to take over is a must.

Wish List for improvements:
We came up with some whoppers for our wish list.  The biggest of these whoppers is what attracted me to this project in the first place.  In the past MBSP had several cameras set up in our wetland area.  These cameras were connected to monitors in our nature center.  The public could see what’s going on in the marsh any time.  Well this system had long since failed and was beyond repair.  It occurred to me if the police could monitor intersections and local TV stations could have weather cams, why couldn’t we.  Our intention is to place some type of real-time cameras in the wetland and another in the day use area to show the inland lake beach and the sledding hill.  People would be able to access these cameras to see the marsh and its wildlife, the sledding hill and how much snow it has, or the swimming beach to see if they want to come out.  Something similar to this is done by the Division of Wildlife to monitor the falcon nests on city buildings.
Our plan is to find someone who might consider funding something like this and ask for a grant.   Funding is not the only issue however.  Vandalism, and lightning are issues to deal with.  Despite the problems, we have great hopes of having this done sometime next year.
Another idea to improve our site and give the customer more information would be the building of a real-time weather/lake water condition monitoring station.  This would provide info about air temperature, wind speed, swimming water temps, and other conditions that would affect the customer’s outdoor experience at our park. We have not pursued this idea yet, but will be getting some help from college students looking for projects that could help our park.
MBSP has Crane Creek State Park (CCSP) as a satellite park.  CCSP and MBSP share an attribute that is becoming very popular these days.  That is bird watching.  Both parks have access to boardwalks that wind through different types of lakeshore habitat and can provide some of the best spring and fall bird watching in North America.  We have a plan to work with a local bird observatory to bring a new constituent to MBSP that already uses CCSP.
The Black Swamp Bird Observatory will provide data about the optimum time to come out to the parks and see the different species of birds.  This information is mostly time and weather based, so it will have to be a continuing project to keep this particular page updated.  We also are discussing links to various bird hot lines that will also help our customers find out more about MBSP, CCSP, and the surrounding area.




Summary and Conclusions:
To summarize, this project, it would have to be made clear, that it takes a significant amount of time to put this all together.  Be prepared to find someone who has a light workload at work or someone who has the time, equipment and is willing to do this at home.  I believe that our attempt to put this together should have been done in the off-season.  Interruptions, like customer service, can get in the way of the thought process required to do a satisfactory job.    We pieced together most of our work through July and August.  We published for the first time in mid-September.
Remember also that the skills required are not so many that almost any one could do it.  This is important when it comes to picking a backup Webmaster.  Keeping it simple also helps in many ways.  Reduced time required, fewer design mistakes to correct, and ease of transfer of responsibility are all advantages of keeping it simple. 
In conclusion, we believe that this website upgrade will not only bring more people to MBSP, but will help to make their outdoor experience more enjoyable and potentially bring more revenue to the parks system.  All the things discussed in this report are easy to accomplish and I believe that any Ohio State Park could easily create their own Website.