In a global crisis, every second counts, because governments can't afford to leave citizens in the dark. In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mass.gov saw a 3x increase in web traffic, with millions of requests coming in each hour as constituents searched for accurate and up-to-date public health information. Thankfully, they were fully prepared to handle this substantial traffic spike due to proactive work by Last Call Media and Acquia.
We sat down with Rob Bayliss and Lisa Mirabile at Last Call Media to learn how the company worked with the Mass Digital team to deliver fast and reliable content to Massachusetts citizens during the pandemic — and every day — through a partnership with Acquia and the Commonwealth.
Steadfast Support for Mass.gov During COVID-19
In the first days of the COVID-19 lockdowns as uncertainty spread across the nation, the Mass.gov site didn’t miss a beat even as traffic tripled and hundreds of thousands of people were downloading daily reports and livestreaming press conferences. As the official website for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Mass.gov has 600+ content authors and editors spanning multiple departments and organizations. All of them work together to get critical, up-to-date information out to citizens. Drupal provides intuitive editing and a flexible admin experience, so each of these unique users can publish the content they need. “One of the enormous advantages of using Drupal for government sites is that it’s a true CMS with a strong approach to managing structured data and multiple content types,” said Mirabile.
“From a technology perspective, COVID-19 was almost a boring event for us. And that’s how it should be. No one was stressed that every time new content was published something was going to break,” said Bayliss, Last Call’s CTO. That’s because the Massachusetts Digital Service has made site performance and scalability a priority, and Last Call Media has actively worked to improve those metrics for Mass.gov.
One improvement was switching to Acquia Edge CDN to optimize and accelerate performance without upsizing their hardware. Edge CDN makes it easy to fine tune the balance between performance and content freshness. When the pandemic hit and people began looking for the latest information as soon as it was released, Last Call could use Edge CDN to check content with "corona” or “covid" in its URL for updates much more frequently than other content to ensure pandemic-related content updates were available as soon as they were published. The critical work the Last Call Media team put in to enhance site performance paid off.
Compared to Mass.gov’s previous CDN, Acquia offered much stronger security and more flexibility around serving content. “We implemented code to manipulate cache lifetimes, and the security enhancements Edge offered made us less vulnerable to risks like distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. As an organization, we could feel confident knowing we were forward-thinking and had prioritized scalability, security, and reliability,” Bayliss explained. Without the worry of poor performance or vulnerability, Mass.gov could focus on the delivery of accurate, available information and creating the most seamless experience for audiences.
Drupal Optimizes the Search for Critical Information with Structured Data and Flexible Technology
When people interact with their state government, they want their voice and preferences to be heard. Drupal communicates feedback from Mass.gov users to authors quickly through structured content, which allows web teams to aggregate data from multiple sources. Mass.gov uses customer forms embedded in different pages throughout the site to capture user information. They then use an API to push and pull that content to different sources. By connecting user feedback with analytics tools, the organization can better understand the context of each user’s journey when they complete an activity or enter contact information. Mass.gov uses these analytics to deliver insights directly back to content authors, so those authors continuously improve the site experience based on real constituent feedback.
One critical feature Last Call Media has employed on the site is the Drupal Metatags module. The module structures content across the site so this information can be optimized for Google Search, meaning that it's more readily displayed at the top of the results pages when a constituent searches for a particular department. “Sometimes the biggest success can be when people don’t even need to click into the site at all to get what they need, because they've already found the answer on the search page,” said Bayliss.
Optimizing Content for Constituent-Centric Experiences
Successful digital government experiences depend on establishing a smooth delivery pipeline and process to keep things running, so that your technical team can focus on innovations for their audience. Last Call Media and the Mass Digital team leveraged Acquia’s open API to automate their release process and reduce the time needed to make site changes. “By hooking up to the API, we established an automated, continuous integration system to manage the release workflow,” Bayliss said. “That efficiency was a stark change from the previous manual process. It used to take hours for one dev to push everything through each stage of testing and production.”
Mass Digital also decided to build one large Drupal site rather than many individual sites, hoping to decrease digital silos and to allow agencies and organizations across the state to collaborate on one canonical source of information. This decision paid off during the pandemic, when multiple organizations, such as the governor’s office, the Department of Public Health, and the Emergency Management Agency, were able to coordinate to produce a single spot for constituents to find the information they needed about COVID-19.
Mass.gov offers a centralized and connected content repository with robust search capabilities, so both content authors and constituents can find everything they need quickly. Last Call Media has also made significant enhancements to the site’s navigation and conducted user research to improve the way information is presented on the page to keep users better oriented. “The reason we can spend so much time improving the experience for constituents is that we had a strong foundation with Mass.gov,” said Mirabile. “If there’s a takeaway, it’s the importance of creating that stability so you can confidently push out these changes.” With the confidence and durability Last Call Media and Acquia brought to Mass.gov, the organization could be there when it mattered most.