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Posts Tagged ‘government’

The Government of Canada’s Common Look and Feel standards are the playbook for maintaining our websites. They were last updated in 2006, before the buzz on “social media,” before the explosion of the mobile web. (“Web 2.0” was a major trend at the time, one that these standards more or less avoided completely.)

Now, updates to CLF are in the works, but until they are released, we’re still playing by 2006 rules. & we all know that four years is an eternity online.

This nugget on mobile got me thinking:

The spread of mobile media devices, whether smartphones or iPads or Nooks, has led to tailored software applications that make reading text and watching video easier on screens smaller than those on personal computers. So people are not viewing this mobile media through a Web browser like Internet Explorer or Firefox, a central point in the Wired “Web Is Dead” article. But the books, magazines and movies viewed on an iPad, for example, are downloaded over the Internet. Indeed, Wired added the headline declaration, “Long Live the Internet.” Similarly, the case for Facebook’s fall someday is that it is a cluttered Web creation when mobile devices demand sleek, simple designs. [via Now Playing – Night of the Living Tech – NYTimes.com]

The same can be said for GoC CLF-compliant websites — they are “cluttered web creations” that may happen to be viewable via mobile devices, but provide relatively poor user experience.

So for me, a mobile site or app is needed. A colleague remarked to me recently that he felt that given improvements in how the browsers work in smartphones, it would make more sense to focus efforts on dedicated mobile apps. I’m not so sure. I don’t have access to an iPhone, but I can tell you that the browser on the Blackberry is, to put it mildly, not so hot.

& there’s another reason why I think mobile sites have their place — in a lot of cases, I feel that users would have a low level of motivation to go through the effort of downloading and installing a dedicated app to interact with GoC content.

Anyhow, here’s a couple of screencaps from my Blackberry browser (version 4.7.1, so not the latest but fairly recent) that illustrate how CLF sites look when you first access them. If you are using a desktop display (such as what I’m using now), keep in mind that these look much smaller on a mobile device.

I find I always need to spend some time zooming and panning to get at readable content. And if I’m not familiar with the site in question, while I’m exploring, I’m also trying to envisage what it “ought” to look like if it were on a laptop- or desktop-sized screen. Even if you know the site well, it often takes several tries to make the page readable. I’m very familiar with the weather forecast for Ottawa example for instance (it’s the start page on my BBerry browser), and I’ve got the routine for it down pat: on load, click the magnifying glass, then scroll to the text forecast, then hit the menu button and select column view to render it in a way that I can read it without squinting.

I’m not sure I’d want to force my users to put up with this kind of experience. Patient and forgiving users (like me!) are few and far between. But even the impatient and unforgiving are starting to use the mobile web in a big way — so we should be adapting to this in a way that lets them get at our content with a minimum of hassle.

A proper mobile site, such as the ones for CIC or PHAC, would be optimized for the screen size on which you are working and would allow you to starting using it productively right away.

The approach that CIC and PHAC appear to have taken is to create a separate mobile site that focuses on top-task content drawn from the main site. Another route could be to implement mobile styles on the main site itself so that users can experience any page without all the zooming and panning. I can think of advantages and pitfalls to both — what’s your take?

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Found this after my post yesterday on SpotCrime:

Vexed tracker: Crime-spotting site denied cop reports

Article from The Hook, a Charlottesville, VA, alternative-style weekly paper (a la Ottawa Xpress or Toronto’s Now Magazine).

Seems that Colin Drane, the guy behind SpotCrime, has had some trouble getting the powers-that-be in Charlottesville to play nice with him:

He launched Spotcrime.com and UCrime.com here October 8, shortly after Charlottesville police declined to provide him with the daily incident report it emails to local media. “The logic was, you have ads on your site and we’re not going to share,” relates Drane, who notes that the Hook, which receives the daily report, has ads on its website. He says city police plan to launch their own crime-tracking site on Google Maps.

Weird logic excuse if you ask me – taking Drane at his word, it’s as if the police force would rather spend their own time and resources developing a mashup rather than let SpotCrime do it for them for free.

Anyhow, there’s always the other side of the story:

City spokesman Ric Barrick says that the Charlottesville police daily incident report is available online, and that Drane “can go onto the website like anyone can.” … Barrick cautions that information on the daily incident report is raw, and what someone calls in as a crime may, upon investigation, turn out to be something completely different. “You have to be very careful in comparing this data,” he warns.

“I do feel like we’re more willing and transparent to get that to the public,” says Barrick. “Other jurisdictions don’t put it out at all. We do have a website. Other jurisdictions don’t. To say we don’t share isn’t fair– but we don’t put out every bit of crime data.”

The reliability factor is an issue, I suppose. I’m envisaging somebody calling the police about some crazy noise in the street at 2 a.m. that turns out to be cats fighting in an alley. But if the data is suspect, then why is it released to the local media and issued on Charlottesville’s police force website too? & why do so many police forces in other places release this data? I don’t get it.

In case you’re wondering in what form Charlottesville’s daily incident report is posted online, turns out that it is (what else) a PDF file that is basically a text table listing reported incidents and arrests with street names and relevant dates. No sorting possible. No mapping despite location data being one of the key pieces of info being provided. And being a PDF, it’s painful to parse or scrape. Ugh.

So overall– yes the Charlottesville police do make an effort to provide the data, but it’s not in a very useful format. SpotCrime provides a very useful way to present the kind of data that the Charlottesville police provide. Really they ought to be able to work together.

Aside: other SpotCrime tidbits:

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(Seen via this post on Mashable)

SpotCrime mashes up police reports (according to TechCrunch, 90% of the data is scraped this way) with Google Maps to provide crime maps for various cities. Users can filter by date, type of crime or time of day.

Click to see full size.

Click to see full size.

Above screen shot is the Ottawa map – here’s SpotCrime’s Ottawa site. Looks like over the last 2 months it’s all about vandalism, theft, and breaking and entering. Very different from Toronto’s profile, which appears to be much more about face to face confrontation — assault, robbery and a few shootings for good measure.

Many other major Canadian cities are included as well – see the list.

SpotCrime also allows users to click on the map icons to get additional detail on each incident and a link to the source data – every one that I clicked through pointed me to a police report of some sort. Users can also sign up for crime alerts or report a crime. Not sure how this last bit works – how is the info vetted? I’m sure there’s more than a few folks out there that might get some kicks out of abusing this. But help documentation on the site is, uh, lacking, and I didn’t go poking around the SpotCrime blog to see if they’d addressed this issue.

Anyhow, it’s still a pretty nice re-use of government data. Very simple and easy to grasp quickly. Much more user-oriented and immediate that the Ottawa Police’s own crime statistics reporting, which is essentially a set of PDF files (ugh) that list reported crimes by district and month.

I wonder how long it’ll take before the Ottawa police decide to collaborate with these folks or someone similar? Would make a lot of sense – they could drop their PDFs and just point folks to SpotCrime or deliver it through their site.

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Last week I posted on how making it easy for visitors to GoC websites to get at publications made sense both in terms of how people use federal govt sites and in terms of policy requirements.

I poked around a bit and found a variety of approaches to this on a variety of GoC sites. Here’s the catalogue from Agriculture and the order page from the Canada Revenue Agency, as well as one from Environment Canada.

But what about taking it up a level? Every federal department and agency undertakes publishing. Warehousing and order fulfillment for publications is a pretty standardized business. This to me is a situation that cries out for some level of centralization.

The basic pieces are already in place for this – Public Works has a central publishing database which is publicly accessible at publications.gc.ca. It has a well developed order processing functionality and is supported by solid warehousing and fulfillment facilities. (I know this from my day job.)

Right now, publications.gc.ca is mostly aimed at fulfilling orders for priced pubs, but it also works well for free* publications, which are by far the most common type of government publication – again this is something I know well, since I was involved in getting Industry Canada to use PWGSC as its fulfillment provider.

But here’s the rub – there’s no way currently to integrate the publications database from publications.gc.ca with other government sites.

I suppose one solution would be simply to transform the “publications” navigation item on each GoC site into a link to the central catalogue, but while this might be the quickest and most efficient way to handle it, I’m not convinced it’s best in terms of user experience. What if there was other stuff I wanted to accomplish on a departmental website as well as ordering a pub? & If I was a Departmental webmaster, I’d want ways to encourage users to stay on my site.

So what’s a better solution? How about an API that would let departments and agencies display the PWGSC’s catalogue data on their sites? Or a widget? Users would be able to browse, place orders, etc., no matter which GoC site they are on, and the departments and agencies could take advantage of good ol’ economies of scale. All they’d have to do is provide accurate info and a quantity of each publication to this central system to see the benefits.

Actually, I could see the advantage of allowing this to spread beyond federal government sites – booksellers or other sites might be interested also in providing such a service – and that kind of seeding the web would allow PWGSC to really say that it’s getting government publications into citizens’ hands.

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* ok so not really free since at the end of the day it’s taxpayer funded — but at least you don’t have to pay twice for “free” govt pubs. Unlike if you want copies of the GoC’s annual reports — they may be freely available online in XHTML and PDF formats, but if you want a paper copy you need to pony up.

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Zsuzsanna Kilián

Credit: Zsuzsanna Kilián (nkzs on stock.xchng)

When I posted last week about getting government publications online, I had forgotten something key: according to the Government of Canada’s Communications Policy, departments and agencies are required to “maintain a publicly accessible index” of their publications. (If you want the reference, it’s the first item in the list under requirement 27 — sorry that’s not a very good link for it, you’ll have to scroll and scroll to get to it.)

This dovetails nicely with obtaining publications being one of the main reasons that visitors come to federal government websites.

So making a prominent “publications” link that leads to a robust catalogue can serve to kill two birds with one stone — not only are you meeting customer demand, but you can also tell your bosses that you are meeting policy obligations. They should like that very much.

BTW, I do plan on posting up a more fulsome piece on how this might look in an ideal world — stay tuned.

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I’ve been looking at why people bother to visit government websites.

Interestingly, in the case of the federal government in Canada at least, one of the main reasons they visit is to obtain publications. This really appeals to the publisher in me — I used to manage publishing projects – the paper kind, and I still regularly advise on publishing and production. It also serves as a good reminder that web comms doesn’t exist in isolation. Yes there is life outside the interwebs — these days I sometimes forget…

I’ve mentioned this particular research before, and I’m turning to it again. It was a sweeping study released last spring that looks at Canadians’ internet use and expectactions for the GoC’s web presence. Here’s the bit from the phone survey that shows what users tend to do on GoC websites.

Going online to order a publication is #2 in this list

24% of respondents visited GC sites to obtain information, a form or a publication (click image to see full size)

OK, so about 1/4 of telephone respondents recalled going to GoC sites to get a form or a publication – this was more common even than looking for government jobs.

I would have liked to see a bit more fine grained info here – “obtained a publication” could just as easily refer to downloading a PDF as it could to ordering a print copy. But the mechanics of posting PDFs for download is totally different than what’s involved with maintaining an order fulfillment webapp (not to mention bricks and mortar part – warehousing print pubs and doing the pick-and-pack and all that).

But in the online portion of the survey, even more respondents – like 3/4 of them – went to GoC sites to get forms or publications. I imagine that the online respondents would be more web savvy and interested in using their computers to get government info and transact their business with us, so it’s kinda cute that lots of them were interested in old-school content formats like pubs… or maybe that just points to how outmoded government thinking is when it comes to creating and distributing content.

woot

74% of respondents visited GC sites to obtain information, a form or a publication (click image to see full size)

Anyhow, what all this says to me is that government websites must make it easy for visitors to get at publications and forms. I might be biased, but I’d argue for making a “publications” link very prominent in your site’s nav template. And then make your catalogue easy to work with — will blog more about this next week.

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I should really pay more attention to Louis Gray. He writes some great stuff, and I really like his approach (minimal snark from a well-known tech blogger is very refreshing!)

Anyhow, last week he was talking about the life cycle of his blog content – but it could be about any form of web content. Including government web presences (or at least the ones with RSS feeds).

While it’s still important to be sure the blog itself loads quickly, for those who view it for the first time, or for those who do click through RSS and choose to leave a comment, the look and feel of the blog is less important over time. I expect fewer people are typing in the louisgray.com URL and viewing pages directly, as they accumulate feeds and read more, and see the blog’s UI more as a shell for content than a destination where a reader would spend a good amount of time. At this stage, the blog is simply a point in time for the content to begin its journey.

This feels absolutely right — the website should be a launch pad not a destination point. Meanwhile here in the GoC we’re for the most part treating our sites as destinations — so lots of time gets spent on site redesigns and recoding old pages to match the latest government standard. (Which despite claiming to take into account “modern practices on the Web,” actually says nothing about RSS feeds or dropping content on outposts like a YouTube channel or a Facebook page.)

And where does Louis Gray’s content journey to? (Besides this blog of course …)

I’m using my blog as a way to project content outward – to RSS readers, to aggregators, like FriendFeed, Strands and Social Median, and to connect with readers via e-mail, using Disqus. It also, via RSS, powers popular sharing sites, like ReadBurner and RSSmeme. But none of those activities, with the exception of comments, require actual visits.

And

The bulk of the activity around the blog is pretty much happening someplace else – making the number one purpose for the blog site itself to convert new visitors into signing up for the RSS feed. So if they bump into the content, via Techmeme, Digg, StumbleUpon, ReadBurner, FriendFeed, or anywhere else, they’ll sign up and take in my content in the way they choose.

So if I were to translate this into my environment as a government communicator: it’s not about my Department’s website. It’s about freeing the site’s content to travel across the Web, and people will consume that content the way they want. The very least I can do to is to create a feed that sets the content free.

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