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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Googling government information

With the Queensland, Federal and NSW governments all moving in the direction of greater pro-active disclosure of information on the web, as part of Freedom of information reforms, one question that arises is whether we can find important information relevant to our interests, now and once the new era is underway, using publicly available search engines such as Google?

Search engine results are essentially statistical. Important but obscure government material might not rate highly. In addition there is the possibility that other problems might stand in the way of easy access to government information.

An expert in the field a few months ago told me that in addition to bad luck in finding things on-line because other documents might out-rate important government ones, other factors might be
poor searchability as a result of use of language in documents not likely to be used by the public; poor URLs; poor page structure; failure to include documents or data-bases in the index due to the way they are published or linked, eg only linked from within a Flash document or in pull-down menus or via a password-protected site; and not that we would expect this, deliberate hiding through use of robots.txt.

There is a whole raft of guidance on web publishing on the Australian Government Information Management Office website. I assume the state equivalents such as the NSW Chief Information Officer have something similar. Whether all this means we are in good hands I have no idea.
(I don't even know
whether robots are used on any government websites, how the index is created or what Flash means.) Google itself says it has the answers. Are our techo types onto problems of searchability and the use of publicly available search engines? I'd be interested in your comments.

These issues to one side, many government websites appear to have other problems. For example Usability One published in February the results of a survey of 12 Federal Government websites after new accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.0) were released by the World Wide Web Consortium in December 2008.
"The accessibility guidelines provide a reference for web developers and web designers to create websites that are accessible to any user, regardless of physical, sensory and cognitive disabilities, and/or technological barriers. None of the websites audited adhere to all criteria in the latest accessibility guidelines. Clearly, updates will have to be made. Even UsabilityOne is updating their website based on the new guidelines. It is possible to excuse websites not being compliant to the new guidelines at this stage. What is alarming is the vast majority didn‟t even comply with the WCAG 1.0 guidelines which have been in place for over 9 years. Of most concern is that many of the Government Department websites reviewed are responsible for protecting the rights of the public, including those with disabilities."

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