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Case study: FEMA

How FEMA.gov was rebuilt to deliver a powerful user experience

Case study: FEMA

FEMA’s new digital platform designed for dependability during critical times

Citizens depend on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for important information during emergencies. In particular, they refer to FEMA.gov to get up-to-the-minute details on a multitude of important facts, including where to go and who to contact for help. Being able to access this information quickly and on any type of device becomes vitally important during times of crisis, making site dependability critically important.

Unfortunately, that was not happening with the old version of FEMA.gov. The site was difficult to navigate and slow—two issues that became magnified during critical times when traffic would typically spike.

Understanding the importance of delivering a powerful, reliable digital experience for users, FEMA began developing a new and improved site with a clear set of goals in mind. It had to be user friendly and highly resilient, with the ability to provide better, more meaningful communication. It also had to stand up to traffic surges and be extremely scalable at a moment’s notice. In short, it needed to follow the U.S. Digital Services Playbook’s mantra of building better digital services that meet the needs of the people.

The Challenge

Creating a friendly and functional design and user interface was a primary concern. In 2010, FEMA held a series of user focus groups to gain a better understanding of how users perceived FEMA.gov. Feedback indicated it took too long to find information, the site was too complicated, some content was inconsistent and outdated, and more. The site also did not support smartphones and tablets—a problem in today’s mobile society.

Addressing site performance issues was also of paramount importance. The existing legacy system did not support fast and effective communication with the public. The site often experienced overloads and slow page-load times, particularly during emergencies when reliability was crucial. It was also not resilient and lacked the ability to consistently deliver a high performing, reliable experience. These issues—combined with content-editing difficulties associated with the old site architecture—limited FEMA’s ability to predict the lead times necessary to communicate to end users, making it challenging for the agency to push out important updates as disasters unfolded.

The Solution

To overcome these challenges, FEMA selected the open source cloud-based Drupal content management system to build its site and the team of Eye Street, Acquia, and Phase2 to completely overhaul the FEMA.gov site.

The large-scale project required thousands of pages to be reviewed, updated, and migrated to the new site, so Acquia used Agile Scrum and iterative development methodologies that enabled development and testing in smaller increments. This allowed for adjustments and reorientation to be made as needed based on completed work and for the project to be scaled easily. In addition, these methodologies provided
stability for the development teams over the course of the project to ensure the new site was launched prior to the start of hurricane season.

The new site was built to support user experiences for all users, paying special attention to accessibility for users requiring assisted technologies. The new site architecture reduced the number of clicks required to access information, making retrieval quicker and easier. General usability throughout the site was also greatly improved through better navigation and search capabilities. Acquia also worked closely with FEMA’s accessibility team to develop and implement technical design solutions in accordance with Section 508 compliance standards, which was one of the key site challenges FEMA identified at the start of the project.

Development of the new FEMA.gov was only the beginning; an ongoing commitment to site resiliency and technology agility was equally important. Acquia performed site audits to ensure quality assurance and continued reliability. Acquia’s open cloud platform also provided FEMA with the ability to scale as necessary, maintain a high quality site, and continue to benefit from ongoing technology innovations taking place within the open source community.

The Results

After launching the new FEMA.gov site, the agency has realized several major benefits. These include greater cost efficiencies in operating its public websites, improved access to critical disaster-assistance information and tips, greater interactivity and accessibility, cross-platform compatibility, and the ability to quickly and dependably deliver key content in multiple languages.

The benefits go well beyond cost efficiencies and savings, providing distinct value to FEMA’s customers—the citizens it serves. The open source, Drupal-based architecture helped improve performance by 93 percent and enables FEMA to provide the public with fast access to information that can be easily modified in real time as necessary. The platform provides citizens with the ability to not only gain information but interact directly with FEMA. They can also now access a mobile-optimized version of FEMA.gov, effectively arming them with a wealth of information regardless of the device they may be using. This has helped improve citizen engagement and overall satisfaction.

The success of the Drupal-based FEMA.gov site has led the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to use the same Drupal platform and architecture as the basis for all subsequent website migration projects. In doing so, development and launch times have been reduced from an average of nine months to four months.

Through the efforts of Eye Street, Acquia, and Phase 2, FEMA now has a resilient, user friendly, and very scalable site that provides the agency with enormous flexibility and power to disseminate critical information in real time. In turn, citizens now have a reliable place to turn to during times of need.

Company Information

Federal Emergency Management Agency
Government Agency
Acquia customer since 2011

3,300+ pages were reviewed, updated, and migrated to the new FEMA.gov site.

Site performance improved by 93%.

17,000+ disaster pages were migrated.

Time to find information reduced to 1 minute or less.

35% increase in user satisfaction scores.

Success Enabled With
  • Drupal
  • Acquia Cloud
  • Acquia Workshops
  • Acquia Professional Services