How hard is it to do a proper sitemap?

24 Mar

A Government friend of mine sent me this link quite a while back.

It is a sitemap for a WA Government agency, the Department for Child Protection, who’s site at the time was still a real mess since some machinery of government changes made it into a new department (the homepage at the root of their domain should give this fact away).

Anyway, back to the sitemap.

Best practice

For best practice on sitemaps, we once again call on Jacob Nielsen, who’s advice issued in 2008 has not changed from his original advice on the topic in 2002:

The two main usability guidelines for site maps are:

  • Call it "Site Map" and use this label to consistently link to the site map throughout the site.
  • Use a static design. Don’t offer users interactive site map widgets. The site map should give users a quick visualization without requiring further interaction (except scrolling, if necessary).

Ok, let’s give credit where its due. The Child Protection sitemap passes these two basic criteria with flying colours… or does it?

If you look at the code used to generate the map, you’ll see the following:
About DCP
Organisation
Minister
Minister
Office Of The Director General
Office of the Director General

Analysing this code in detail, you’ll see that the information isn’t structured as an unordered list. To create the indents and show visually there is some form of hierarchy to the information, they have simply added spaces to the left of each line item.

While this method of display would be great for those blessed with the gift of site, it simply doesn’t work for those who can’t see and rely on assistive technologies to browse websites (screen readers, et al).

What do the state standards say

The Website Standards: Common Website Elements document describes the set of common website elements that are required for a consistent layout on all WA Government websites. However, this does not lay down and hard and fast standards as to how sitemaps are to be presented.

So, let’s go to the Guidelines for State Government websites:

4.4.2 Recommendations for Western Australian Websites

  • It is recommended that Western Australia government websites are at the very least Priority 1 accessible
  • It is recommended that Western Australia government websites should meet Priority 2
  • Priority 3 improves access to web documents for all user groups and is the optimum strategy for Western Australia government websites.

W3C accessibility guidelines must be applied when developing a new website. For information on Priority 1, Priority 2 and Priority 3 elements refer to W3C’s List of Checkpoints for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

If utilising commercial developers, it is advisable to ensure Priority 3 or Priority 2 are included as well as Priority 1 as a requirement in any tenders or contracts.

However, for existing websites, a business case should be undertaken to evaluate the cost of repair versus the cost of re-building to reach compliance.

Ok, that’s a lot of text. In summary, you should meet priority 1 as a bare minimum, and be aiming for priority 2.

A couple of basic tests give this a pass on Priority 1, so they scrape by.

But should they scrape by?

My opinion, no. What’s been done here is a really dodgy sitemap, which for a sighted person is hard to read, and is impossible for a non-sighted person to make sense of its structure.

You’ll see in Nielsen’s 2008 study, they looked at the sitemaps of multiple entities

Now while the 2008 study (associated report, now available for free download) found that sitemaps were rarely used, with only 7% of users in the test group turning to them, Nielsen argues (and I agree) that “they’re the only feature that gives users a true overview of everything on a site.”

Nielsen continues:

A site map lets users see all available content areas on one page, and gives them instant access to those site pages. Site maps can also help users find information on a cluttered site, providing a clean, simple view of the user interface and the available content. Site maps are not a cure-all, however. No site map can fix problems inherent in a site’s structure, such as poor navigational organization, poorly named sections, or poorly coordinated subsites.

There’s also aspects of sitemaps that have importance around search engine optimisation outcomes, but that’s a whole other topic best left for another time.

Death to spammers

23 Mar

You can make the best website, provide human verification, or run some of the best anti-spam tools on the planet to try and ensure your site or blog remains free of as much crap as possible.

But try as you might, some still gets through. In this case, it was because I used a default WordPress contact form that someone was able to exploit and let some crap through the portal.

He’s an example of this piece of spam. The example below is posted in full, and I’ve added the links to the address and name of the site – tagging these with rel=”nofollow” to ensure that search engines can make the connection to this spamming company but give them zero credit for it.

Name: Zeena Bushnaq
Email: zeena@wazala.com
Website: http://www.wazala.com
Message: Hello,

We are a startup in the e-commerce space, Wazala is designed to provide a very minimal and simple user experience for shoppers and store owners.
We have just released Wazala Touch, a technology that allows shoppers to browse online stores on their mobile devices, providing an app like rich experience within the mobile device browser.

As we know, in the small to mid size e-commerce space, we cannot expect shoppers to download an iphone application to purchase products. Wazala Touch was designed to provide the richness of a true mobile application through the mobile web browser. Wazala Touch currently supports Iphone and Android, and we are developing for other mobile platforms.

We are very confident that you will enjoy the simplicity and elegance of Wazala Touch. Visit www.wazala.com and click on the floating demo store button or visit wazala.wazala.com to start experiencing Wazala Touch on your mobile device.

We feel your readers would love to know about Wazala, and would appreciate a quick review on your blog.


Zeena Bushnaq
Managing Director
zeena@wazala.com
http://www.wazala.com

Did you know that you can make mad cash promoting Wazala! Go to http://www.wazala.com/affiliate/

Spam annoys the stink out of me. So many people and companies devote significant resources to battling the problem, and this is before we get all green talking about the electrical energy that’s wasted as a result of nefarious and unnecessary use of computing systems.

So my present to Zeena Bushnaq is white hat SEO techniques. This blog post has been strucutred in such a way to ensure that mentions and searches relating to your company and its products will be tagged and associated with the insidious practices of spam in perputiuity.

I have also hyperlinked his email address, and left intact – because if you spam then you deserve the consequences that are coming to you. Black hat email spiders won’t respect the rel=”nofollow” on the email address for a second, but it’ll be slurped up and spat out into global databases one by one, loading up him and his companies mail servers with more spam each day.

As the old proverb says, do unto others…

Sticking to the script

16 Feb

While stuck at home today with a splitting headache, the radar went off with the launch of a new WA government website for the Buy West Eat Best campaign.

The domain selected shows that the state’s Website Governance Framework is at best a toothless tiger. The framework specifically mandates when selecting non .wa.gov.au is ok – and this campaign isn’t one of them.

Worse still, they have the .wa.gov.au subdomain and redirect it to the .org.au address.

And while on the subject of Government web addresses, why do agencies insist on selecting the longest domain possible which often repeats the geographic elements contained within the gTLD address.

KISS theory applies for address selection, if its too long its too hard to remember thus keeping people from reaching your site.

Hey Rudd and Conroy: Its my internet, and I’ll do what I want to

15 Dec

Firstly, apologies to Lesley Gore. Consider this post title a homage to the title of your first song.

Despite my infrequent posts, I’m going to go off script for a little bit and talk about an issue which goes to the heart of the internet – censorship. More specifically, I’d like to voice some of my concerns and hopefully provide anyone whose prepared to listen for a few moments some food for thought, and information on some simple actions they can take to put the brakes on this Government folly.

If you’ve been living under a rock for a while or missed the tech news today, our Federal Government is pushing forward with a plan to force Internet Service Providers [ISPs] to censor the Internet for all Australians. This plan will waste tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and will not make anyone safer.

What will the filter do?

Well, that’s still the subject of debate because the Government hasn’t been honest and open about what it really plans to do.

Information available so far indicates that the Government;

  • will make filtering mandatory in all homes and schools across the country.1
  • will implement a clean feed will censor material that is “harmful and inappropriate” for children.2
  • must enact supporting legislation that requires a massive expansion of the ACMA’s blacklist of prohibited content, and therefore the scope and financial burden to taxpayers.3
  • will force all internet traffic to pass through dynamic filters of questionable accuracy that slow the internet down by an average of 30%.4
  • will target legal as well as illegal material.5
  • has been budgeted in excess of $44m for the implementation of this scheme so far – and counting.6
  • despite saying the clean-feed for children will be opt-out, will still force all traffic second filter will be mandatory for all Australian Internet users.7

Some simple cost/benefit analysis

On a cost basis alone I dread to think what the ongoing burden to the Australian taxpayer will be from this filter.

I’ve not been able to find out how much China has invested and continues to expend on its great firewall, but considering they have over an estimated 30,000 internet police [ref], imagine the cost of providing a scaled number of internet police in the Australian bureaucracy.

Here’s the executive summary of my estimate of potential costs in respect of the workforce needed to support the filter:

  • One agency will almost double in staff overnight, adding 470+ new staff to deliver the ‘clean feed’
  • raw wages costs for these employees will be in the order of $26.3 million, increasing over $30 million by 2020
  • this amount does not factor in population growth or employee on-costs which would increase these amounts considerably

For those who wish to explore beyond the executive summary, let’s do some quick math to work out how I came to this. I don’t put this math up as a definitive answer to this question, and there might be some economists out there who could punch holes in it – but please stick with me.

My working assumption is that the amount of internet police needed scales to the size of the population. If we use China’s 2007 estimated population as the baseline, they have 1 member of the internet police for approximately ever 37,667 (rounded) citizens. If you want to check that math, do it as a percentage by looking at the size of the Australian population compared to China (Wolfram Alpha is your friend for these calculations).

Sticking with the assuming that the number of internet police in china can scale to population size, ACMA will be adding around 477 people to it’s payroll – which working on the 2007/08 annual report staffing figures would almost double the agency’s size almost overnight. (2008/09 report hasn’t been uploaded to their website yet).

Now, the next calculation assumes that these additional 477 new staff will be distributed across ACMA’s collective agreement pay bands within similar to the reported distribution in the previously cited staffing figures.

Excluding an estimated 16 staff to be paid at Senior Executive Service levels, the raw wages bill for these staff works out to $26.3 million for 2007/08. This figure is before the calculation of on-costs to salaries such as Superannuation, leave entitlements, costs of providing HR services, etc. I can’t put my hands on an average number for on-costs across Federal Government right at this point.

Adjust that for national wage inflation (reported at 0.9% annually for the March 2009 quarter), this increases to around $30 million by the end of 2020 – without scaling workforce size to account for population growth (can’t do population math at 11:30 in the evening despite this being one of the key assumptions in my math).

And what about infrastructure costs?

Worse, this cost is before we talk about outlays for physical infrastructure, software, bandwidth, development and other ongoing costs necessary for such a system to be maintained. I’ve not seen any costings yet which explore how much money would be needed to maintain filtering infrastructure for the foreseeable future – so I’d just be plucking any figure out of thin air at this point.

This all makes you wonder that given the size and scope of the mandatory internet filter as both a government undertaking and an IT project – the enormous scale of taxpayer funds that would need to be spent to achieve the stated goal. Could this money be better spent in other areas of Government service delivery – without question, yes!

What does it mean to me as an Australian internet user?

If this plan goes ahead, this is what it will mean to you as an Australian internet user and taxpayer:

  1. Your tax dollars will be wasted on a flawed and expensive folly
    At a time when hospitals are crowded, people experience long wait lists for the most basic and important surgery, and we can’t even feed, house, clothe and protect the most vulnerable members of society – should the Government be throwing our hard earned money away on this? I think not.Everyone, from industry groups, technical experts, civil libertarians (those important people who who stand up for the rights of those you may not like or agree with), and even non-government organisations whose sole reason for existence is for the protection of children – denounce this filter as an ineffective and expensive waste of government resources.
  2. Everything you do online can, and could easily be monitored
    All traffic to sites on the filtering or block lists will be filtered and logged via a proxy. What’s to stop all your traffic being filtered and monitored in future?All it takes is for you to visit one website which some Government jobsworth doesn’t like, and you could easily find that all your traffic, and not just those to sites some committee finds objectionable could be monitored with relative ease.
  3. Expect your access to the ‘tubes’ to be slowed down
    The Government’s own [self-promoting and heavily biased] report released today stated:

    “It is possible for the solution to fail if pages from a heavily trafficked site are added to the blacklist. This is due to volume limitations of a typical proxy server. These sites serve video content to end users (such as YouTube, etc). The volume of video traffic would be likely to overwhelm a proxy server.

    Not surprising, considering this pilot behind the report was setup and skewed in such a way which virtually guaranteed the Government was going to get the answer it wants.

  4. It can be circumvented
    Anyone with a little technical knowledge can easily get around mandatory ISP filtering regardless of the technical barriers your internet company is forced to put in your way. Its not hard for someone with the least amount of IT experience to set-up an SSL tunnel to an offshore proxy server and simply route all their traffic through there circumventing pretty much every technical option the government proposes to implement with a single, simple action.

So, are we as a society going to sit back and let Australia’s internet turn into the second coming of the Great Firewall of China – or are you going to help us do something about it.

What you can do

If the arguments and views you’ve seen expressed about the internet filter make you think this government policy isn’t worth pursuing – then you need to stand up and make your voice heard.

Some of the actions you can take right now include:

  1. Find out more about the Government proposals
    Visit http://nocleanfeed.com/ and http://www.getup.org.au/campaign/SaveTheNet to get up to speed on the Government’s proposals.
  2. Let your Federal representatives know what you think
    Resources to locate your MP’s details and suggested letters can be found at:
    http://nocleanfeed.com/action.html
  3. Show your support on various social networks including Twitter and Facebook
    Visit http://twibbon.com/cause/nocleanfeed-3/Facebook to add a ribbon to your profile pic.
  4. Pass the message on
    Putting the brakes on proposals like this can only happen if people get involved and have their voices heard. Feel free to repost this message to your wall, profile, wherever you feel is necessary to help Australians become aware of just what their Government is proposing to do with our money.

Good luck, and look forward to any help and assistance you can offer to keep Government hands away from our internet connections.

Looking at government web analytics

25 Nov

Well, I had a very productive day in Canberra yesterday, having gone over for an event run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Web Analytics in Government. It was a full house, with even resident federal parliamentary tech evangelist Sen. Kate Lundy having to be turned down.

One of my favourite ways to take notes at these sessions is using mindmaps, with XMind being my tool of choice. I’ve not had a chance to do a unified map to link up the various speaker themes as yet, but there was quite a number of common themes across the spectrum. Speakers covered areas including how we’re doing it, highlighting the value analytics provides to government communication, and how much further things have to go to help agencies and stakeholders understand the value of communicating via the web.

Sadly, I needed to leave before the panel discussion commenced otherwise I would have missed my flight home. Reading Craig Thomler‘s (author of the eGov AU blog) twitter posts for the panel session, the discussion focused around if the needs of commercial and government analytics are any different. The panel of experts assembled, including Rod Jacka, Hurol Inan and others was split on the question with two either way.

So you can get an idea of what was discussed at the sessions, here’s my mindmaps from the day. They should provide you some good food for thought on the topics discussed and prod you into action. If you want the full XMind map files to reuse them, please drop me a line.

Apologies for the gallery below not providing the best way to lay these out, just trying to get them up as quickly as possible so they can be of use to people.

How not to do it: Public Transport Authority

31 Mar

I’m going to start a semi-regular feature piece here, at the moment under a working title of how not to do it.

I want to make it crystal clear from the outset – I’m not trying to embarrass the agencies, companies or parties featured in these posts. The intent is to highlight some of the mistakes we’ve made as collectively as a sector in the citizen engagement arena, and hopefully suggest solutions to help us not repeat it.

It’s not going to be a cure for our problems, but at least it might start us talking and put us on the road to finding one.

It also might seem a little odd for me to open this series with the Public Transport Authority (PTA), considering I have given them kudos for their efforts in some areas such as open data access. However, while they have been a leading light in some areas, they are let down by their performance in others.

The two examples from the PTA I wish to discuss for this first edition are:

Old information is just as bad as no information

Recently, the PTA held a competition asking the public to suggest a name for their new ferry due to be commissioned sometime this year. I only found out about this while on the PTA site doing some research for an earlier posting.

The PTA’s media article didn’t mention the closing date of the competition, so naturally I clicked on the link to the Transperth website to enter and find out more. Having some ideas, I started to complete the entry form and while doing so looked at the text on this page.

The competition closed on March 16, 2009.

It’s been two weeks since the competition closed, so why is the page or at least the entry form still there? An update to the page advising the competition has closed and winners are to be announced shortly would have been a simple to achieve. This however goes to the core of some agency web operations, my own included, where we don’t keep good action calendars or don’t have a decent content management system (CMS) in place to do these things for us busy web managers and maintainers.

I’ll admit openly that I’ve been guilty of this with the websites I manage more frequently that I’d like (job listings being a primary offender). It’s still no excuse for letting it happen and as a sector we must do better to manage old, outdated or expired content, along with keeping the good content fresh and up to date.

Participation, participation, participation

Something else I found out while on the PTA site is that their enabling legislation is up for review. Section 70 of their act requires a review of the operation and effectiveness of the Act be carried out every five years. No problems there, their act is up for review and I might consider making a submission considering I use their services every day as part of my commute to and from work.

Where they have missed the opportunity here is to use the full suite of tools and services available to them, to provide every opportunity for interested parties to become aware of the review and have the opportunity to participate and contribute.
Some of the avenues available for use included:

  • Utilising their major websites for awareness
    I would reasonably assume that not all customers of the PTA visit their main corporate site on a daily basis. I suspect they’re more like to visit one of their brand sites for information relevant to them. Why not spend a short amount of time drafting some copy for the brand websites targeting these consumers, and inviting their participation in the process. It could even give them ideas for the types of feedback that are relevant to the review, and offer alternative channels for submitting that feedback.
  • Mailing lists
    The Transperth brand has access to a number of mailing lists, including the TravelEasy announcements and registered SmartRider users. Again, utilise the power of these lists and directly invite consumers to participate in the review – an email with a good enough hook or reason to participate in directly influencing the direction of public transport shouldn’t be hard to draft.
  • Citizenscape
    This is a tool available to every WA government, and I personally get annoyed as a customer when agencies consulting on issues relevant to my needs don’t use it. This site was developed with the purpose of being the one place to go when citizens want to know what is happening within government and how they can directly participate. I’ve searched this site and there’s no reference to the PTA Act review in there at all.

Now why do I suggest these three items and not some expensive, costly, time consuming solution? Simple, all three of these options are already available for use and the time and costs of utilising them is non-existent to inconsequential.

When it comes time for the review report to be tabled in Parliament, it enables the PTA to demonstrate they have used the breath of tools available to them for consulting with the public, and raising awareness of the review – a proactive use of public funds and resources to try and achieve the best possible outcomes.

I personally plan to ask the question if and when I sit down to submit my own comments on the review, likely discussing some of the points I’ve raised in this article. I’d also love to see a representative of the people ask a similar question in Parliament when reviews are submitted, asking agencies why they didn’t use every avenue available to them to raise awareness of and encourage participation.

Now let’s get positive

So there’s a couple of example where we’ve not exactly done well as a sector, so let’s find some positive efforts to hopefully inspire us.

One of the best examples in recent history comes from my trans-tasman colleagues in the New Zealand Police Service, who in 2007 undertook wholesale public engagement to deliver a redeveloped version of their Police Act, last revised in 1958.

They decided to go online to encourage wide public participation, and the entire act was placed on a wiki. It took four full time staff to monitor, but for these rather minimal costs the outcome was an act that better delivered on constituent needs that also generated new ideas.

From the collaboration project:

The Police Act review team met consequences as well as successes when the wiki became a forum for the public to express its displeasure with speeding ticket enforcement and other unpopular laws, despite their necessity for public safety. A participatory legislation model such as this requires a more extensive trial to determine whether this sort of collaboration can create reasoned legislation that would include not just the public’s desires but their careful considerations of the limitations inherent in governance, such as budgets, regulations, and obligations.

Ultimately the wiki served to build consensus among ideas for the new legislation which the review team offered to legislators for consideration in their own drafting of a new act.

The community consultation efforts of New Zealand Police to revising their act received worldwide attention, with positive reports in the mainstream media and support and praise from the online community.

Ok, not everyone has the time or resources to set up a wiki, but what we do have the time to do is think about the resources and services we have available to our agencies and use them for their benefit when opportunities like this arise. It helps cement our position as a provider of solutions, and a group of people who are actively seeking to improve the triple bottom line outcomes for our employers by reducing costs and increasing community participation.

Is information held by the Government a national resource?

30 Mar

There’s been much discussion in the last few days over proposed changes to Australia’s freedom of information laws.

As part of its policy platform announced at the 2007 Federal election, it committed to reforming the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) with the principal objects of promoting a pro-disclosure culture across the Government and building a stronger foundation for more openness in government.

While these reforms won’t have much of an impact at state Government levels (yet), I am in two minds over the following statement made by Senator the Hon Robert Faulkner in a companion guide to the reforms:

Information held by the Government is a national resource and should be managed in the public interest. Access to government information increases public participation, and leads to increased scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of government activity.

The upsides of improved access to information

I am all for the intent of the statement, and there’s been several examples where access to government information has enhanced the ability of citizens to access services and information. One example which springs to mind is the iTT Perth application built for the iPhone platform. Thanks to the Public Transport Authority (PTA) releasing their timetable information in an open format, it has enabled developers to repurpose and reuse this data for the benefit of all.

In the case of the iTT Perth application, the developer has taken the data, ported it to a handheld platform, and added a useful interface over the top to enable easy access to timetable information. The application also leverages the iPhone’s GPS capabilities so instead of having to be at a physical stop to capture the stop number and look it up, it will automatically find the nearest stop and give you the information you need.

Such an application wouldn’t have been possible if the PTA didn’t make it publicly and freely available, and by doing so it has created an environment where innovation can prosper and enable consumer-driven service improvements to be delivered. It showed that consumers who love a specific brand are prepared and will often show their devotion and loyalty to it by enhancing what it does or embracing its value in their own special way – a concept called Lovemarks, which was first put to paper by Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of the global marketing and communications giant Saatchi & Saatchi. Lovemarks has taken on a life of it’s own that the company now refers to itself as ‘the lovemarks company’.

Just the way I’m referring to Lovemarks and Saatchi & Saatchi should give you an idea of just how much I respect that brand and what Lovemarks is all about.

Failing to allow your users to participate and utilise your data can have pretty negative consequences. The most recent and highest publicity failure in this area centered around New South Wales rail provider CityRail threatening legal action against the man who developed the Transit Sydney application. CityRail’s stance was totally against innovation and invention in this field, and it promoted the direct and personal intervention of Premier Nathan Rees to resolve the issue – and it wasn’t any surprise that Rees sides with the application’s developer.

Where could it all go wrong if not done properly?

So those are the positives of innovation, but you might ask where are the negatives of which I referred to.

My role is within an agency who’s primary source of funding comes from it’s day to day business, selling and managing timber assets for profit. Our sole shareholder, the People of Western Australia through the Government of the day. We don’t receive funds from consolidated revenue or taxation, our business and quality of product determines if we survive or fold, and in turn deliver a profit or loss for the people. Thankfully, we’ve returned a profit in nearly every year of operation since establishment, and thankfully our profit goes beyond dollars, but also returns and benefits in social and environmental outcomes – the triple bottom line.

As part of doing business, we have to constantly innovate and and find ways of delivering a better product for both now and in the future. While our innovation is managed and takes place in the public interest, any such changes to FOI legislation must protect both my employer and similar agencies/instrumentalities across Australia who’s innovation takes place in the public interest.

If the changes to these laws are not handled correctly, there is a risk that the work being done for the benefit of all could fall into the hands of some, taking away what benefits could be derrived for everyone and not just a small group of shareholders who’s core focus is on returning a nice dividend check at the end of the year to pay for a summer house and nanny.

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