New website helps Ithacans find resources

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Ithacans now have a new website with listings on everything from restaurants and family activities to hotels and service providers, all by community writers – Ithaca.Community.

Activist team Nicole LaFave, assistant director of Diversity Alumni Programs at Cornell, and Mariellen VanDyke Brown, owner of Happy Tree Solutions website development company, wanted a single site that gave community-reported information about area activities, businesses and resources that Ithacans could then use to decide what experience is right for them.

Essentially, as the website puts it, it was created to “help Ithacans find what they’re looking for.”

Brown was the original brains behind the website, and as she puts it, Ithaca.Community grew out of a need that she encountered while teaching prenatal yoga. Many mothers approached her before or after her classes asking for places to go with young children, and Brown realized that there was a growing need for a place parents and others could go for just that purpose.

“I found myself having the same conversation over and over with different moms, … and then, I thought, ‘there must be a way you could sort this information on a website,’” she said.

There are plenty of sites that list activities for the Ithaca area, but, Brown said, many of them are simply compiled from other internet resources and are not always accurate to Ithaca. She said she felt it was important to have information written by those in the community, for those in the community.

“I really wanted it to be an authentic voice of someone who is here, like you’re talking to a friend,” Brown said.

Brown, who is well-versed in website design thanks to her full-time job, put together a basic website with a few listings of local activities and businesses that might be useful to parents. That’s when she reached out to LaFave, a fellow parent and member of BJM Families Together, the PTA organization at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School.

“We started talking a little bit more about how could we take this idea that was created for a very specific audience and start thinking about other audiences … and what do those needs look like when you start to think about the community as a whole,” Brown said.

The more the two discussed the idea, LaFave said, the more they decided on a direction.

“We realized Ithaca is family, so we started talking about different resources that we would point parents to,” LaFave said. “It was just about the community and having a space or a platform where people in the community can find what they need or ask for what they need.”

Ithaca.Community went live publicly in late August, and currently, the team has four members – LaFave, Brown, and writers Laura Vineyard and Casey Verderosa. The four have helped create the website in addition to their full-time jobs and parenting responsibilities, which makes it rather labor-intensive, Brown and LaFave agreed.

It’s a project over a year in the making, but both consider it well worth the effort.

“This has been a labor of love in addition to our full-time jobs and our families,” Brown said.

The listings, which are vetted for accuracy but not too extensive, LaFave said, are created with many considerations in mind, trying not to make assumptions on what the audience needs. After looking at the demographics in Ithaca, it was clear the listings had to take into account factors like wealth disparities and disabilities, which make features like wheelchair ramps and free parking important to include.

“We talked about the different barriers that keep people from coming together, and I think that was also another way that we decided what would be on the website,” LaFave said.

Learning about those barriers was a surprise for both women, as the writers’ listings opened their eyes to new resources, places and needs they hadn’t considered before.

“I know what I want and what makes navigating Ithaca easy for me, but I can’t put myself in the shoes of someone else to know what their wants are and what their needs are,” LaFave said.

Brown shared that mentality, and she is grateful to learn more about what Ithaca has to offer for all sorts of people.

“I didn’t realize what a bubble I currently live in until I started to think outside that bubble and tried to put myself in the shoes of someone else,” Brown said.

For Ithaca.Community, there is the first goal of connecting Ithacans to what they’re looking for, but there is another, bigger-picture goal, Brown and LaFave said, and that’s to create community.

“Our mission is to help people in the community find what it is that they’re looking for but also find spaces where people can come together,” Brown said. “Our priority is to build upon community, to make it easier and less cumbersome for people to try new places in Ithaca.”

The hope is that covering a variety of resources for Ithacans will encourage people to venture places they hadn’t considered before, allowing them to get a good Ithaca experience regardless of socioeconomic status, demographic, etc.

Moving forward, LaFave and Brown have created a community survey for their website to get feedback from users on what they want most out of the site. From there, the website will evolve depending on what Ithacans need most.

“We are putting this site out here, launching it, really as more of a question, so it’s designed to evolve,” Brown said.

Both women have expressed an eagerness to see the survey feedback and website analytics to figure out how people use the site.

“I’d really like to see spaces use the data from the site to change the structure of their store fronts and the structure of their accessibility options,” Brown said.

Feedback so far has been mixed, with some encouraging responses and others that argue it’s not a sustainable project. Brown and LaFave said both sides have merit, and they’re doing what they can to make sure this website becomes the best it can be.

“You’re always going to have critics, and I think both sides are very helpful in terms of, these are the pros, and these are the cons, and how do I distinguish this site from the next?” LaFave said. “It’s important that it is a community project that you should have something that is actually feeding people in whatever way that it feeds them.”

In all, Brown said the team has already learned so much through this project, and though there is still some ways to go, everyone is excited for the future.

“Now that I can see the potential of the site, I can just see the ways in which we can begin a conversation about some of these aspects – what makes something family-friendly? What makes something accessible to all people?” Brown said. “A lot of people have needs and barriers that aren’t discussed out in the open, and so, I just think that this is a starting point.”

Visit Ithaca.Community to learn more and to take the feedback survey.

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