Surfing with Ed on the Internet…

by Ed Swires-Hennessy, Local Government Data Unit - Wales

Ed continues his appraisals of different national Web Sites to stimulate use of the Internet, share best practice and encourage debate.

 

This, the 99th, review of a statistical web site, returns to home territory. The National Statistics site of the UK (http://www.statistics.gov.uk) was last the subject of a published review four years ago. Since then, some parts of the site have seen greater changes than others – yet some of the difficulties for the user noted then are still apparent today.

 

The home page is more appealing to the user – and certainly more user-friendly than the previous version. Gone is the list of themes of statistics from the left-hand navigation which has been replaced by a drop down selector for themes and three separate major groups of links: key statistics, quick links and ‘other ONS sites’. This last one is an odd heading – ONS is not mentioned anywhere else on this page. Further, within this heading, the last link implies that the information about National Statistics is on another site: indeed there are three links to this page.

 

Design

 

The removal of graphics from the top of the page is a welcome change; a pity though that at the same time the changing key news line was not also removed (this now takes over a minute to get back to the same link – and some are repeated in the news headings anyway). The use of small, identifiable, picture graphics certainly adds to the appearance – and is not too intrusive. The right hand column includes ‘latest releases’ – two of which also appeared in the ‘News’ section – making the page much more busy than necessary.

 

The page design is to a fixed resolution of 800 x 600 – but, at that resolution, the page needs vertical scrolling. With a resolution of 1024 x 768, the depth of the page is visible but a white section to the right is visible.

 

All of the text on the home page is of fixed size – and thus cannot be altered by the visually impaired to aid their reading. This was not the case, however, on the neighbourhood statistics pages where the text size did increase (apart from the two major headings which were obviously graphics).

 

Navigation

 

Since the last review, the link colour in the main part of the site has changed but, I believe, a fundamental redesign of colours is required: emboldened blue is a link colour and a heading (non-linked) colour; ordinary blue is both text (non-linked) and a link. The pointers are linked as are the picture graphics. Tool tips are used for the pictures and the logo – though the National Statistics logo only replicates the words and does not include United Kingdom.

 

I assumed that the word ‘home’ just below the site logo on the home page was the start of a thread through the site: it is – but applies differently on some parts of the site and not throughout. For example, when in Neighbourhood, the ‘home page’ start of the thread returns the user to neighbourhood statistics home with the site logo returning the user to the site home page.

 

Data formatting

 

For a foreign user, the data will be confusing. I first looked at the UK Snapshot and was thrilled to see a good use of the menu system, allowing the user first to choose a topic and then – within an alphabetic list – choose the area of interest. I chose Health and Drug poisoning and was presented with a chart and text on England and Wales deaths; for Health / Cigarette smoking the data were for Great Britain; for Health / alcohol-related deaths the data were for the United Kingdom. Either the data in this section should be for the United Kingdom only – or much more prominence should be given to the area covered – with a hyperlinked explanation.

 

On some pages, the originating Departmental crests are shown – but are not hyperlinked. The right hand panel, though, does display external links, including the relevant source Department.

 

My two standard searches on a site are population and inflation: both of these are listed on the Key statistics heading in the left-hand column and link simply and easily to UK data.

 

The data available on the Neighbourhood statistics part of the site is vast – and provides for a variety of different types of geographical accesses (with a link to a detailed description of the different types of area available). Displaying a map of the chosen area is also very helpful to the user.

 

Other

 

Links to some publications are to the whole publication in one file PDF or zip – the largest file found was 9.5 Mb. Most users will not require the whole publication, though this could always be an option, and the splitting into smaller portions for them would be a great help.

 

Consistency on charting through the site would improve the look and feel (some gridlines are absent on graphs (e.g. inflation) and the scales not consistently presented (with same rounding or with thousands’ separators).

 

Within the Time Series data I chose to examine the ‘Finco’ (?) shares owned by individuals and was led simply through the options and downloaded a series: the table did not display the data descriptor – so I did not know whether the 44.4 for 2004 was millions or billions.

 

Overall

 

This site has grown significantly in the amount of information available and the ease with which one can download data for use. The key, as with all large collections of information, is the index and the search facilities: the former has improved, the latter has stayed the same. Indeed, it is simpler to use Google search engine to find some items than the site search facility.

 

This review was undertaken by Ed Swires-Hennessy using Internet Explorer version 6.0 on 9 November 2006 at 10.00 hrs GMT using a 4 Mb link to the Internet on a Pentium 4 1.7 GHz machine.