Success stories

How Madera County Reimagined Their Website as a Crucial COVID Dashboard

more page views from previous year
> 1,900
community feedback form submissions
increase in mobile web access
phone calls to public health staff
From valleys to mountains, the over-2,100-square-mile breadth of California’s Madera County can make reaching audiences a challenge in the best of times. The COVID pandemic placed a high priority on information access and engagement to all residents in the county. That’s when Madera County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) turned to Granicus’ govAccess solution to evolve their one-page website and integrate ESRI – GIS Dashboard tools featuring a suite of consistently-updated information for media and the public, as well as forms for community feedback and two-way communication.
To be able to spatially represent our data, to see it in a graph, to see it on a map, people have a better understanding, it allows them to visualize it. We’re a very visual society.
Juli Gregson

Reaching a Broad Audience in a Time of Crisis

Located in the geographical center of California, Madera County’s population of more than 150,000 residents expands from the San Joaquin Valley to the central Sierra Nevadas, even reaching the southeastern tip of Yosemite National Park in the county’s northeast corner. Spanning over 2,100 square miles offers Madera residents the chance to appreciate diverse natural landscapes but can present challenges when it comes to connecting with important information in times of crisis.

“There aren’t many counties like ours that way,” said Juli Gregson, Administrative Analyst for Website, Madera County Department of Public Health. “We’re in an impact area and air district where we do have difficulties due to the geography of the valley with air quality. So the more that residents and staff can do digitally, the less trips people have to make into town. That’s gas saved, that’s air quality saved.”

While digital services can provide an environmental benefit, the COVID pandemic made digital access a global public health necessity, including in Madera County. At the start of 2020, Madera County Department of Public Health featured only one page on COVID, and Gregson stood as the only staff member in the agency dedicated to digital communications and was responsible for building the website.

“I wouldn’t say our website wasn’t viewed that often,” said Brian Gamble, Communications Program Manager, Madera County Department of Public Health, “but it didn’t have high traffic and people would randomly stumble upon it. Before the pandemic, our website had a lot of information that we wanted to streamline.”

Public Health Director Sara Bosse and Public Health Officer Dr. Simon Paul saw the need for transparency and decided early on to invest in technology and staff. “As the pandemic grew,” Gamble said, “so did our communication team and the audience — and they wanted more information.”

“It was a very active audience,” Gamble said. “It seemed like the first time we actually experienced people wanting to know about public health. We became very popular, very quickly. Popular, both in a negative and positive way. That was something new we had to navigate.”

As with other government organizations, Madera County Department of Public Health found themselves needing to act quickly and change to a more agile approach in a sector where incremental change is often more the norm.

“Like most government agencies, we initially focused on one-way outbound communication and tried to put accurate, quick, and quality information out there,” said Stephanie Nathan, Assistant Public Health Director, Madera County Department of Public Health. “But with COVID, we quickly realized that wasn’t going to work. Just providing information alone, wasn’t enough. People had very specific questions, especially at the very beginning when it first started because there was so much hysteria around it.”

With the amount of data and information at their fingertips, MCDPH looked to find a way to not only provide answers to the public and media, but also serve as a hub for communication that reached throughout their county.


A Dashboard to Inform and Engage

Leveraging Granicus’ govAccess, the Public Health team set out to create a dashboard that combined daily updates gathered through GIS information (which draws from geographic and regional information) and epidemiological data, as well as forms that allowed community interaction and more.

“For public health, the use of the dashboard was amazing because it allowed us to start deploying new GIS tools online,” said Juan Witrago, IT Division Manager for Madera County’s Department of Information Technology. “We already had some general GIS maps, GIS applications pertaining to different departments. But we hadn’t integrated map information and other data before.”

Working with epidemiologist Minh Nguyen, Witrago worked to find the best ways to combine these sets of data in reliable, replicable ways. And the clock was ticking. “Like everything else related to COVID, it was an emergency,” he said. “It came in quickly. We had to learn quickly. We had to [launch] this dashboard quickly.”

As data was gathered in one area, the evolving pandemic changed information needs as well. That presented a challenge for development.

“We initially had a list of cases with basic demographics info for each case, but not enough to provide the identity of each case, because the community was curious and asking about specific cases,” said Nguyen. “Then over time people would ask for even more specific information, such as specific geographical areas. We wanted to accommodate and be transparent without compromising the confidentiality of the cases. We eventually would have five different reporting areas.”

Using a system that could keep up with ever-changing information was vital to the success of the dashboard, said Gregson, adding that govAccess’ reliability and analytic tools was something that the team depended on.

“We might be looking at 1,700 iterations for our one COVID landing page since it’s been up,” said Gregson. “Not only does that speak to the reliability from Granicus, but it also allows us to go back and look at feedback data, take a deeper dive into our website, and see what was effective. We learned so much through this and it was fun. It was crazy at times, but it was fun.”

Two-way communication was a critical element of the vision for the MCDPH dashboard. The dashboard provided updated COVID case numbers on a regular basis (daily at 4 p.m.) and offered feedback forms allowing the public to leave information or ask questions rather than inundate staff with phone calls. Other forms also served an important role aiding local businesses reporting outbreaks any time 24/7. The form offered a survey which triggered follow-up from the county’s contact tracing team, staffed by deputies from the Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services.

“Because we had such interaction with the media, it was important to get the case information out,” recalled Gregson. “Then also just getting information out to the community. As the need grew, it became such a collaboration between different departments.”

“Our community is diverse, and access information in a variety of ways – radio, TV, social media, but the website served as an anchor to access information directly”, said Director Bosse. “It ensured our media partners and community-based organizations could provide up-to-date information”.

Alongside social media, Nathan said that combining different Public Health program Listservs (lists of partner and public email addresses) created an efficient and quick way to reach out to the public to share information in the early days of the dashboard. Much like the dashboard’s evolution, that email engagement also changed over time.

“We’ve become more sophisticated in the way that we’ve communicated to stakeholders,” she said. “It used to just be an email and now it looks like a newsletter. We’ve decreased the frequency, as well. But at the beginning, that combined listserv was one of our primary modes of communication. We did daily emails at one point. Now that I look back, I’m like, ‘That sounds absurd to send emails that frequently.’ But it was necessary to give them case updates.”


Working Together Brings Lessons for the Future

Madera County Department of Public Health’s dashboard led to 40 times more unique visitors to the department’s website and 65 times more page views than the previous year, with over twice as many international visitors.

While the dashboard’s popularity could be explained by the urgency of the information it provided during the pandemic, the continued impact on communicating and engaging with the public and media represents a distinct shift forward.

“The pandemic really thrust us into being seen more regularly and people wanting to see more information,” said Gamble. “Working with different county agencies, having the different voices and perspectives has been very helpful. As part of the Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services, we were even able to work with the PIO from the Sheriff’s Department, lending that audience as well. Being able to leverage those followers helps us reach more people in the future.”

A second dashboard was added in 2021 to help with information related to COVID vaccinations in the county which, Gregson said, benefitted from the engagement lessons learned from the first dashboard.

“It’s just been a huge part of our communication after it really took off. We saw from analytics, for example, that cell phone usage was increasing,” she said, referring to a 24% uptick in mobile usage from 2020 to 2021. “We really had to make a point of making sure our screens were adapted well for cell phones and Granicus allowed us to do that.”

“Even little things like GIFs,” she added. “I didn’t know that we could actually use GIFs on the website. We learned that in a Granicus class and we’re able to add just a little bit more to our website.”

As with all good communication and engagement strategies, the lessons learned from the COVID dashboards will benefit future projects from the Madera County Department of Public Health, said Nathan.

“We’ve figured out what worked, what didn’t work, and what people like. “An example is with our dashboard. We gradually fine-tuned what was on there. At one point, we put everything and the kitchen sink on there but later realized, ‘We don’t need 10 different graphs!’ We’ve learned a lot and we are applying those lessons to other projects now,” she said.

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