Let’s fix it, by breaking it!

Last week was a very trying week for me, website wise. One of those weeks when you just want to scream, because you can’t believe people would do such frustrating things.

I monitor a lot of web sources for news that’s relevant to my employers business, and to do that, I rely heavily on RSS feeds. They allow me to see the output of sites quickly, and mean that I don’t have to visit those sites repeatedly each day to be able to track their content. So, RSS feeds are VERY important to me. And in the context of Government sites, they’re important for the general public too, helping to enable them to see what’s happening in various departments, e.g. if consultations have been published that they might want to respond to, or if new regulations have been issued that may affect their business.

Meanwhile…the Government has stated that it’s consolidating websites into the http://www.gov.uk address, and 24 departments will be moving to that address over the next 18 months. The first two moved last week, and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was one of them. Of course, this move to a new web address broke all the RSS feeds. Since I’m monitoring hundreds of sites at once, it was only a few days later, when I saw a Cabinet Office press release about the move, that I realised that the RSS feeds were dead.

Not a great start for a new site – the feeds had been killed, with no warning, and no message to say “As of X date, these RSS feeds will no longer be active. Please go to X address to find the new feeds.” Not even a temporary redirect to the new site – just dead, and gone, without notice. Thanks for that – I missed 2/3 days of press releases due to that.

So, off I go to the new .gov.uk version of the site, to try and find where the RSS feeds are now. The DCLG page looks nice: it has a “Latest” section, “Our Publications”, and “Our Announcements” sections, all relevant to me.

However…the Latest section is just that  -3 stories, no archive of them is accessible that way. The Policies and Announcements sections do allow you to “see all of our publications” or “see all of our announcements”, but clicking through to these, it’s obvious that this is merely the results of a search being run on the site when you click through, not an actual archive. And there’s no RSS feed from it. There’s no RSS feed anywhere to be found.

Now, I have raised this issue via the feedback form, and have (quickly – top marks for a fast response at least) been told:

There is a feed for publications at http://www.gov.uk/government/publications
There are also feeds for each topic at http://www.gov.uk/government/topics
Feeds for orgs and announcements are coming soon. 

This is ok (ish) as a temporary fix, but it still has issues: the feeds are for ALL Government publications, and ALL Topics. You can go into topics, and take the RSS feeds for each of the various Topics, but it’s not topics I want, it’s specific departments. I may want to know about how a roads development may impact on certain areas, but I want the planning elements of it, so taking the feed for Transport means I’d be getting (and have been getting) large amounts of irrelevant information (Channel Tunnel safety, bus statistics, Concessionary Travel notes…).

So, until there’s a specific Departmental feed, I just have to wade through everything coming in on those feeds. Joy!

To add to the fun, The Scottish Court Service also redesigned its website last week.To continue the popular theme of “not telling users in advance”, it too broke its RSS feeds, without any notification. So the feeds that I subscribed to, to keep an eye on cases being issued from the Court of Session and Sheriff Court are no longer work. And there isn’t even the slightest hint of an RSS feed on the new Judgments pages. So that’s another site redesign successfully removing a way of monitoring the output of the site, and multiple cases that were issued that I’ve missed, because I didn’t know the feed was dead.

Also, to see the cases involves going to the Search Judgments page, and clicking a radio button. This then causes the page to reload. Once it’s reloaded (in the case of the “50 most recent cases”), there is now another button to click…which causes the page to reload again. Surely there must be a simpler way of displaying content that to have to go through all these clicks and reloads?

And the Infuriating Dropdown Menus (as demonstrated painfully for quite some time now by The Scotsman website) have made an unwelcome appearance. These dropdowns frantically appear if you accidentally stray too close with the cursor, and overlay the actual text you want to read: “The Courts” page in particular sits and overlays the page text for quite some time, and does not pop back up out of the way if the mouse is moved off it.

I don’t understand how these things happen – yes, there has obviously been massive amounts of work done to redesign these sites, and move them. For example, all the old DCLG links to documents I have in our Current Awareness service still work, as there’s a redirect in place for them (unlike when DTI/DBERR/BIS changed themselves every few years – that in itself almost gave me a nervous breakdown, hundred of dead links!). But at no point does anybody think “I know, lets ask the users of the site about how they use it, and what the most important elements of it are for them, so we can make sure we retain them.” They could have asked for input via, oh, I dunno, a release sent out on the RSS feed? I’m no web designer, but this move towards removing methods that allow users to monitor Government output is frustrating, to say the least!

And do you know the best bit? Only 2 of the 24 migrating sites have moved so far, DCLG being one of the first. Even contemplating the chaos that could result from this move is making me whimper….

Things which are not helpful

Today, I’ve spent a lot of time banging my head against the brick wall of bad or mad search design.

First up was the Scottish Government, with its contribution to “thwarting any attempt at a search”, by somehow managing to date various items as being released on October, November and December…of this year. So looking for recent items was impressively pointless. As was the fact that the search was also giving over 300k results.

Looking forward to that Forced Marriage report in December.

Then, I went into the Scottish Parliament website, to try doing a search in the Official Report. Top tip: don’t do this. Ever. Use Google to search the Parliament’s website instead.

Mainly because, if you can get the report to return hits, then you get to wade through the results, blindly. And blindly it is, because the search doesn’t give you any idea of how many pages of results you’ve got, or any shortcut to get to specific points/leapfrog to a further point. So if you know when something happened, and just want to get to that point in time, you need to click…and click….and click…hoping to get to where you know you want to be, but not knowing how long it will take, to move through the unknown number of pages….

So yeah: just Google it. It’s less stressful, I can assure you.

The confusion of the Public Data Corporation

This press release was posted by the Land Registry yesterday, and it’s left me a bit confused.

  • What are these Public Data Organisations (PDOs) the Government is creating? I had never heard mention of these before.
  • The Met Office, Ordnance Survey, and Land Register are moving into this PDO? Why?
  • The Land Registry was part of the Ministry of Justice? Really? 
  • The Land Registry will be part of the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills – that seems like an odd combination.
  • Why are there no links to any of the supporting materials mentioned in the press release. The “previous work on the Feasibility Study”? The “findings reported to ministers”?
  • Why was this not announced earlier than on the day it actually happened?
  • Why is the enabling legislation coming into force after the change happens – why was it not made and in force in advance of this move?

So…the moneymaking Government departments are being hived off into a mysterious body called a PDO, which there are no links to the justification for, there’s no information on what it will do, and a consultation will happen “in the summer” (we’re halfway through it now, so they’d better move fast!) which will establish “membership, structure, and commercial strategy” based on the consultation, “later this year”…this just seems a bit chaotic, vague, and thrown together!

And these new PDOs.. they sound like they’re all going to be commercial enterprises, to exploit the data the Government agencies produce…what does this mean for the public trying to access this data?

Anyone know more about this stuff?

Government + IT = a mess

The GNN (or Government News Network) was nice.
It published the press releases from all the Government departments, and if, like me, you prefered to pick them up through an RSS feed instead of emails, it was lovely, helpful, efficient.

On the 1 April 2008, after quietly announcing it on the 28th March 2008 on their site (where, if you’re using their RSS feeds you will never go), the GNN became NDS (News Distribution Service).

They boldly stated “The look and branding of this site have therefore changed, although the services remain the same.”

Nuh-uh.

If you took the RSS feeds, these are now all dead, as they are coming from a different web address.
Emails of the press releases are coming from a new address too apparently.

This meant, for me anyway, re-registering as a new user (as they seemed to have wiped my account in the process) and re-subscribing to all the feeds again. Not a great start to the day! Especially when the Government had just announced the “Power of Information Task Force, which will drive forward the Government ‘s pledge to meet rising aspirations of modern communications practice and improve engagement with citizens through social media.” It didn’t bode well, if they managed to break one of the things that WAS working well at improving communications!

Also, during the 1st of April, any link to any news release prior to that date wasn’t working either. Thankfully though, somebody there realised the problem and fixed it! A big relief for me – I really didn’t have the time to spare to go in and fix every link I’ve made to the site over the past 3 years!

Lets hope things go smoothly from now on – after the DTI / Berr farce, I wasn’t holding out much hope for this, but the rapid fixing of the dead links problem definitely gives me hope!

Getting with the technology

I’m quite liking this – the Scottish Government are trying new things with technology, in this case, paying to put anti drink-driving adverts in billboards in X Box driving games.

Definitely an interesting way to get the message across, and I suppose it also doubles as a type of tourist advert, as it doesn’t say anything about the ads being restricted to players in Scotland only?

Either way, it bodes well for a Government to be as comfortable with using different media as this one looks to be! What next….

Oh no, wait…

Links to some documents from 2007 and 2006 on the old DTI site still work, so at least we can still access them (for now).

Links to some pages from 2006 and 2007 actually have a redirect…which is an advance.

Apart from the fact that the redirect takes me to a page that I’m ‘not authorised to view’

1. You are not authorized to view this page

You might not have permission to view this directory or page using the credentials you supplied.


If you believe you should be able to view this directory or page, please try to contact the Web site by using any e-mail address or phone number that may be listed on the Homepage(); www.dti.gov.uk home page.

You can click Search to look for information on the Internet.

2. HTTP Error 403 – Forbidden
Internet Explorer

I think it’s an advance, but I’m not altogether sure….although the fact that a redirect from a DTI page to a BERR page actually sends me to a DTI screen and advised me to go to http://www.dti.gov.uk, not http://www.berr.gov.uk makes my poor brain hurt.

DTI / BERR – I despair!!!

Ok, so as well as deciding to suddenly change departments / name with no notice (in itself enough to make me scream with frustration), those clever chaps and chapesses at the ex-DTI have gone one step further…and shifted most of the materials onto the new http://www.berr.gov.uk web address.

With no redirects.

Wonderful.

Here comes a good few weeks of altering every single damn link to their materials that we’ve ever posted to our current awareness service.

Even changing the ‘dti’ part of the web address to ‘berr’ doesn’t work.

They helpfully tell me this when I click on a link:

The DTI web page or document you are looking for has not been found.

Administration

The DTI web page or document you are looking for has not been found.


We have restructured our website, and the information you are looking for has been moved, or you have clicked on an inaccurate link.

* If you are looking for a specific piece of information, you may find it easier to use the search engine or our Site Map.

* If you are looking for a particular document DTI has published, you can search our Reports & Publications site.

* If you still cannot find what you are looking for, call our Ministerial Correspondence Unit on 020 7215 5000 or email us.

Please update your bookmarks with the new URL.

Really? You think I should update my bookmarks? Why, what a splendid idea, I couldn’t have thought of it myself! And now, despite the fact that using it makes me weep with frustration, I’m meant to use your internal search engine to try and discover where you’ve put all those lovely, useful documents that we’d linked to because they were, well, lovely and useful!

*sigh*