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Institute Launches Redesigned Web Site with Access to More than 25,000 Pages of Data About Western New York

By Rachel Mansour

Release Date: June 10, 2002

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- You are a major employer in downtown Buffalo and are looking for a Western New York park with a playground and shelters for the company picnic. Where do you begin?

You are a student at the University at Buffalo and are conducting a study of the region's historical architecture. To start the process you plan to contact historical societies in Western New York. Where do you begin?

You are a resident of Niagara County and are concerned about controversial legislation, but you don't know how to contact the appropriate decision-makers. Where do you begin?

A visit to the Western New York Regional Information Network (WNYRIN) at http://www.wnyrin.com would quickly answer these three questions through a searchable database of the region's parks, detailed information on the region's historical societies and a complete listing of Niagara County government officials.

But that is just the beginning. Western New York residents, local governments, businesses and not-for-profit groups are discovering that this online depository of regional information will answer, or direct them to those who can answer, an impressively wide range of inquiries about the eight-county region.

In its short existence, the Western New York Regional Information Network, created and maintained by the University at Buffalo Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, has experienced exponential growth. In just three years the number of pages has increased fivefold, from 5,300 to more than 25,000. Features include images, maps and photographs, advanced search engines, and directory listings of about 20,000 agencies, municipalities, government officials, and facilities in Western New York.

The Web site now averages 475,000 pages viewed and more than 3 million hits from about 27,000 unique users each month -- a sharp increase from an average 5,000 monthly users in 1999. Although most visitors to the site are local, others come from more than 40 countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Japan. To better organize content and handle increased visitor traffic, a new interface with user-friendly navigation features was launched in March 2002.

"We intended the Western New York Regional Information Network to be an information resource on the Buffalo-Niagara region for our own residents and perhaps for some users around the world," said John B. Sheffer, II, director of the institute. "We had no idea that it would grow to this extent and be used day to day by so many people, businesses and groups in so many areas -- especially without any marketing of the Web site."

Based on the premise that effective governance depends upon reliable and current information available to the entire community, UB's Governance Project recommended in 1996 the creation of an online information resource. By summer 1997 the first version of the project -- sponsored by UB's Office of Public Service and Urban Affairs -- went online as a resource for Erie County.

In fall 1997 the project went under the auspices of the institute, a public service of UB that supports regional planning, government efficiency, economic development, service delivery and other initiatives crucial to the region's vitality. The online resource expanded its scope in 1998 to cover the entire Western New York region.

"This is truly a regional resource," said Olivia Arditi, operations director of the network. "It is the only attempt to integrate dispersed information from the private and not-for-profit sectors, as well as municipal and county-level government, into an accessible, streamlined resource for the region."

Residents, government and not-for-profit organizations alike will discover on the network several wide-ranging public-service directories, including 15 searchable databases on education, life and community, economic development, and other critical areas. Visitors will find listings of public-safety services such as fire and police agencies and courts, as well as a roster of government agencies and officials in Western New York counties and jurisdictions.

The region abounds with cultural and recreational resources, from parks and geological wonders to museums and performing arts companies. The Web site aims to introduce residents and travelers to both the region's popular and off-the-beaten-track wonders with its extensive searchable listings, images, photographs and researched descriptions. Visitors also will find searchable databases of, for example, parks, museums, libraries, historical associations and theater companies.

"The network helps put Western New York on the map," said Arditi, referring to the national and international exposure the site has given the region and its rich quality of life.

The online resource is an effective and convenient research tool. For example, the institute has employed its expertise in GIS (geographic information systems) to create clickable maps of the region's hospitals, mass transit services and schools. With just a click of the mouse, visitors have access to municipal master plans, demographic and census data, school "report cards" and much more.

The network distinguishes itself as the primary, non-commercial Web site for Western New York with its user-friendly features and commitment to serving as a wide-ranging resource for those interested in learning about the region's public services.

A visit to the Web site does not overwhelm users with superfluous information, but quickly directs them, typically within three to four clicks, to their destinations. It is logically organized by 10 topics or themes -- government and jurisdictions; maps, data, and research; life and community; education and child care; health and human services; economic development; environment and planning; infrastructure; housing and real estate, and public safety and justice. Helpful navigation features on the Web site's homepage include pull-down menus of dozens of services and every regional municipality and a clickable icon of the eight counties. Moreover, each service, government, or not-for-profit agency on the network is given its own Web page, not only creating a predictable format, but also bringing online those that do not have their own Web site.

"Improved navigability of the site has increased the public's use of the site," Arditi said, adding that a majority of visitors now take time to explore the site rather than log off once their questions are answered.

Added Sheffer: "The Web site is one of about a dozen major programs of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth. It's a very practical, valuable service that we are hoping to maintain for the region for the long term."