The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) oversees the policy and programs that protect and conserve the environment, water and heritage of Australia. The department also works to promote climate action and to provide reliable and affordable energy.
Every five years, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment publishes The State of the Environment Report (SoE), a comprehensive study that documents environmental conditions and trends across the Australian continent, external territories and surrounding seas. Used by policy makers, academics, public servants and researchers alike, the SoE is recognized as an environmental system of record, in addition to informing policy decisions.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s digital team needed to deliver the SoE report in a meaningful and data rich way, which could meet the needs of sophisticated web users. This decision would offer a contemporary alternative to the hard copy report that is traditionally published, and can easily reach more than 1,500 pages.
The team at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment needed a flexible platform that would allow content authors to modernize and break the tradition of printed government reports. Additionally, the digital team required the ability to accommodate past and future reports, to offer a comparative analysis of each report unlike ever before. So the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment asked Acquia and digital agency, Doghouse, to help break the constraints of a traditional website to provide a constituent-centric experience.
This would be the first time the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment would publish both printed and digital versions of the SoE Report. Due to the in-depth and scientific nature of the data, including complex scientific graphics and spatial data, the digital publication of the SoE had significantly more requirements than a traditional website.
The organization also wanted to extend the value of the SoE by offering the ability to track and compare changes over time. However, cross publication would establish a variety of challenges surrounding content authoring, as amendments in the physical report had to be appropriately accommodated in the digital version. These challenges also extended to peer review, as the report is also supported by more than 770 stakeholders and users.
If building an online report that was interactive and engaging wasn’t challenging enough, the Department also needed to satisfy the Digital Service Standard, instituted by the Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agency. In addition to ensuring accessibility, the Digital Service Standards also asks that government agencies make all new source code open by default. This emphasis on collaboration and user experience empowered the digital team behind the SoE report to build on its own terms.
To tackle an ambitious project and to meet core requirements, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment selected to build the inaugural soe.environment.gov.au on the govCMS platform, in partnership with Acquia. Established by the Department of Finance in 2015, govCMS is an open source content management system built with Drupal. With Acquia Site Factory, the Australian government can power every agency website on one platform. Today, more than 70 government agencies rely on govCMS to deliver their mission.
Publishing the SoE Report online would prove to be one of the more demanding govCMS implementations to date. So Acquia referred the DAWE to experienced technology partner, Doghouse, to help lead the Drupal implementation.
“To run a digital project that encompasses a vast and complex set of requirements, delivers an innovative solution involving more than 700 contributors in the public sector for the first time, and then launch the report and website within strict governmental guidelines and deadlines, you really have to have a team you trust, work collaboratively and a really solid foundation. This is precisely the relationship between DAWE, Doghouse and Acquia that made this project a success,” said Megan Watson, assistant director of the State of the Environment section at DAWE.
With govCMS, the DAWE was able to leverage readily available modules to quickly build the online SoE report. The flexibility inherent to Drupal also allowed the DAWE to develop new functionality. For example, in order to build interactive graphs that made complex scientific data accessible, the DAWE built a new module called CKAN, in partnership with the Victorian government. The CKAN module uses data from data.gov.au to pull and analyze data from a variety of departments to produce a National Map. The DAWE open sourced the code behind National Map, and now other government agencies are taking advantage.
Through a strong emphasis on site architecture, the new SoE Digital provides much greater flexibility for decision-makers, researchers and the public to explore and discover information. In an effort to put the user first, the SoE Digital homepage was also designed to not look like a traditional government website, and to entice the user to enter the site to discover more information about the state of Australia’s environment. The platform allows readers to compare findings with the previous assessment; search for specific trends; interact with more than 300 maps and graphs, and filter the report’s content by theme.
In partnership with Acquia and Doghouse, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment launched soe.environment.gov.au in 12 months. For the first time, the digital report is mobile first, WCAG 2.0 AA compliant and offers various report stakeholders an engaging and intuitive experience.
“We see the combination of Drupal and the govCMS platform as an incredibly powerful provider of information delivery,” Watson said. “Our users can carve up the content in so many different ways - essentially it’s user defined. That’s vastly different to what you can do with a static report. We now have so many different ways to surface information and aggregate it, so it fulfills different user requirements for accessing different levels of information.”
Looking forward to 2021, the SoE report will contain 15 years of data and findings covering three reporting cycles - all available online. In partnership with Doghouse, the The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s revolutionary work earned the 2017 Acquia Engage Award for Best Public Sector Experience.
“Across any sector, the future is transparency, certainly in the public sector and even more so with the environment. Increasingly, people want to be involved in social issues they care about - the environment is incredibly emotive, and as an independent information source, the SoE is something the public can really get behind,” Watson said.