Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cyberspace Makeover at California Stem Cell Agency

California's $3 billion stem cell agency has performed a well-done makeover on its most important public face – its web site, which is chock-a-block full of useful information for researchers and the unwashed alike.

At, one can find the very words of its directors as they wrestle with everything from grant approvals to conflicts of interest. Scientists can be seen telling the story of their accomplishments. Money can be followed, and summaries of reviews of grant applications read, both those approved and those that did not pass muster.

The web site of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (the formal name of the agency) is the place where the stem cell program really meets the public. News stories are important, but infrequent. Day to day, however, thousands of interested persons seek out information that the folks at CIRM HQ, just a long throw from the San Francisco Giants ballpark, bring to cyberspace.

Each month, said Amy Adams, major domo of the web site, 15,000 to 17,000 “unique viewers” visit online. She told the California Stem Cell Report in an email,
“We're up about 25 percent year over year in unique viewers to the site. A lot of that growth comes from search, and the rest is from traffic driven through our blog and Facebook.” 
The numbers are not huge compared to those chalked up by major media sites. But they are significant given that there are only a few thousand people worldwide who are deeply and regularly interested in stem cell research. Many more, however, are stimulated to look into the subject from time to time, either because of news stories, personal, disease-related concerns or simple interest in cutting edge science. Engaging those readers, who can spread the CIRM story, and winning their approval is critical for the agency as it faces the need to raise more millions as it money runs out in the next few years.

CIRM has mounted much information online over its short life. So much that good tools are needed to navigate the site. Decisions about what should go on the home page are critical. With the makeover, the agency now has a long-needed, home-page link to its meetings , especially those of its governing board, which are the single most important events at the agency.

The redesign is crisp and clean. The new, white background makes it easier to read and is comfortable for readers long conditioned to the black-on-white print of the books, newspapers and magazines. The video image on the home page is larger, which helps attract viewers. The site has long had a carload of videos, some of which contain powerful and emotional stories from patients.

Adams used CIRM staffers to test the new features. She reported,
“I've had people inside CIRM (who have been beta testing this site) tell me that they are finding content they'd never seen before because the site is so much easier to navigate.”
Adams and the CIRM communications team also have pulled together important information on each grant on a single page, including progress reports. You can find a sample here on a $1 million grant to Stanford's Helen Blau.

Adams said,
 “Now people can not only read about what our grantees are hoping to accomplish, they can read about what has actually been accomplished with our funding.”
Adams said another new feature is downloadable spread sheets of information that can be manipulated by readers offline. She said,
“Most places on the site where you see tables, you can now download those tables to Excel. You'll notice the small Excel icon at the lower left of the table. This feature has long been available for the searchable grants table. Now you'll see it on all the tables of review reports (see here for example on the disease fact sheets (see here and other places throughout the site. This is part of an effort to make our funding records more publicly available.”
CIRM's search engine for its web site still needs work. A search using the term “CIRM budget 2012-2013” did not produce a budget document on the first two pages of the search results. A search on the term “Proposition 71,” the ballot initiative that created CIRM, did not provide a direct link to its text on the first two pages of search results.

Also missing from the web site, as far as I can tell, is a list of the persons who appointed the past and present board members as well as the dates of the board members' terms of office. The biographies on some of the 29 governing board members come up short. In the case of Susan Bryant, her bio does not mention that she is interim executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Irvine. Links also could be added to board members statements of economic interest. A list of CIRM staff members (only slightly more than 50 persons) and their titles could be added.

As for CIRM's count of visitors, CIRM uses Google Analytics tools. Adams said,
“A unique visitor is Google's definition (it's one of the metrics they provide). It's a visit from a unique IP (internet protocol) address. So, if you visit our site multiple times from one IP address during a day, you count as a single unique visitor. (Editor's note: It is possible to have more than one visitor from the same IP address.)
“We get ~23,000-25,000 visits per month, or ~16,000-18,000 unique visitors. Page views are on the order of 65,000 a month.”
Our take: The redesign of the web site is a worthy effort and enhances CIRM's relationships with all those who come looking for information. The agency is to be commended and should continue its work to improve the site and its connections with the public.
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