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 month I visited the newly revised site of UK National Statistics, last reviewed after the previous major revision in July 2000  (http://www.statistics.gov.uk). The site retains the basic three-column format but is much more effectively presented with some really thoughtful ideas for user access. The only downside on the home page is the Statbox with its cycling headlines. Just miss one of the headlines and you have another half a minute to wait for it to cycle round again: one of the stories appeared three times on the home page on the day I visited! The simplification of the header (just over 1 kb for the logo!) and the introduction of very economic headings on the top navigation for the major areas of the site really help download and access times. Such simplification – retaining the major areas and helps for the user – is a great credit to the designers.

Within the overall design the text size generally appears fixed – which disadvantages those with impaired vision. Adjusting the text size via the browser has no impact on the main pages but, if one does this on the Registration Service home page, all will increase in size apart from the first paragraph. This site continues the modern trend to show hyperlinks as normal text without underlining (apart from the foot of page navigation) until the user hovers over the text when the underlining (and possibly change of colours) appears: this is not as user-friendly as the standard underlining but does have a more normal view to the pages.

Internal navigation is simple, effective and efficient. Minor inconsistencies were found – but then the site is very new. Much information is available for viewing through the Virtual Bookshelf but in PDF files! Even one of the latest monitor files (MM24 for July 2002 on External Trade) did not take advantage of the latest facilities within Adobe Acrobat to give access to the vast arrays of data in a useable format. At the foot of the first table in another monitor on the CPI for August 2002, an apparent link to a chart showing the data does not work if the monitor is downloaded (and no warning is given to the user).

So what about data? The absolutely basic information on the UK is in UK in Figures: not obvious from the home page, I searched for it. Quickly found, I was told I could view, download or order it. The GIF file was missing; left and right clicks to view or download did not work. Following the link for more information did not help but offered some instances of poor presentation.

My next quest was for a basic time series of population data – not census information. Under quick links on the home page, I chose ‘Time Series Data’; navigated through lots of pages but couldn’t find any time series data on population. It could have been in the Monthly Digest of Statistics but I gave up looking through the contents list. Trying ‘Search’ again gave some links to population data – but the typeface used in the table employed serifs and was much more difficult to read on screen.  The data – only 1991, 1999 and 2000. Trying another link took me to a population table from Population Trends – in a sans serif typeface – and I had a time series. The header information for this table is interesting both employing blue underlined text and emboldened text as links. The table can be found quicker through the Index of Contents link on the home page.

The claimant count series of the unemployed was easier to find through the Time Series Data – but the resulting table presented numbers in yet another format.

Neighbourhood statistics still has the old banner heading but the availability of data is vast, easy to access and navigate. Some cogent thought will have to be given to the new data available from the Census and other sources so that the user is not given a list of possibilities that is too long and unstructured. A minor criticism here is the use of bright blue text in several areas – none being hyperlinked. The full geographic search of information is brilliant and can only be improved with a greater provision of data: I hope the system does not crash when the Census data is online.

The site is a vast improvement on the last edition. Inconsistencies need to be addressed and PDF data files banished or, as a minimum, have Excel versions accessible. Much more thought has been given to structuring and linking information.

This review was undertaken using Internet Explorer version 5.0 on 3 October at 10.00 hrs GMT using a 256 Kbit link to the Internet on a Pentium III 866 MHz machine.

Please send and comments and suggestions for sites to review to

Ed.Swires-Hennessy@lgdu-wales.gov.uk