Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Being Objective

It’s fair to say that most Local Authority websites are a collection of text based articles, in fact that’s a reasonably good description of most websites. Sure, many will have a forum or two, perhaps an events calendar, in fact all Local Authority websites will have at least a small amount of more complex functionality, but on the whole they’re based around pages of text.

Recently I’ve started to look at website content in a different way, not just as text but as a collection of objects. To illustrate what I mean by this, let’s take an example of a page about a library. A conventional page would be an article with textual information about the library. It would probably contain things like the address of the library, contact details, perhaps a map, perhaps events at the library and so on.

An object however would be a digital representation of that library. The object would contain metadata about what type of object the library is, the latitude and longitude of where the library is located, what image should represent the library and so on.

Contact details could be imported into a directory, events into a calendar, rather than including a map and this object could be included in a map itself, and not just on the Local Authority’s website, but any other that wished to re-use the content.

I can’t take credit for these ideas, many have proposed them before me. Sir Tim Berners Lee coined the phrase the Semantic Web to describe this and Facebook have big plans for Open Graph once they release Timeline. I’ve not seen them referred to in the context of a Local Authority website however and to me it seems to fit well with services and facilities that a Council might offer or operate.

Those who are already acquainted with what I’ve been discussing will recognise that I’ve barely touched the subject and a quick view of sites like schema.org will confirm this but what of those struggling to see the benefits of this approach?

My original incentive for looking at website content this way came from Facebook. Including basic Open Graph tags and a Like button on specific pages contained on your site means that each object also becomes a Page on Facebook.

If for nothing else, then I think being “objective” is worth it.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

LocalGov Websites the Next Generation

Not so long ago most websites were generally created to do one just thing, to publish the same information to the same people at the same time. Improvements in line speed, browser functionality and Internet availability mean that these days websites are generally used for two more tasks, service delivery and user engagement. One website isn’t enough for many medium to large organisations, some having multiple web presences each aimed at different audiences.

Recently I’ve been looking at how this could be reflected in what local authorities offer online and have come to the conclusion there are two distinct groups who might access a council website, customers and citizens. With this in mind I looked at how a site could be created for each type of user, in effect splitting an existing site into two.

The initial concept of the sites should be simple. The customer wants easy access to services or service information and to be able carry out what they came to the site for as quickly as possible. The site would be organised around service tasks and types.

Some residents on the other had might want to find an event, see local news or discuss things with their council or other local people and this is who the citizen website would cater for. Integrating with Facebook through the use of Open Graph tags and social plug-ins, as well as pulling in content from Twitter and RSS could create a real community resource.

Of course they’ll be crossover, the customer who wants to discuss refuse collection or the citizen who just wishes to find out what’s happening at her local library at the weekend, but on the whole I think the concept is sound. If it wasn’t it wouldn’t be so prevalent in the private sector.

So they’ll be two sites, with two roles but this doesn’t mean they should be entirely self contained, in fact separating content might even increase engagement. Let’s say a customer comes to the service centric site to report a pothole in their road, they have no intention of looking at news or events. They find the service they need quickly thanks to the site being lean and task driven however once they’ve reported the we can display targeted content about their area and the subject we know they have an interest in. This would be much like the “you may also like” functionality that many commercial sites work.

Of course these are fairly general ideas and they would be far from simple to implement, however with the right resources, enthusiasm and buy-in perhaps this could be the next generation of local authority websites.

You thoughts on these ideas are always welcome and the best way to contact me is at http://twitter.com/#!/PhilRumens
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.