Web Content + Open Data: Toward A Less Bifurcated User Experience

Greg Wilson
Posted

What does Brigham Young have in common with open data and web content?An illustration of Brigham Young with "OPen Data" and "Web Content" along his bifurcated beard.

They’re both prone to bifurcation. In Brigham’s case, it was his beard (especially in his later years). In the case of open data and web content it is this:

Consuming content from both a government web site and an open data portal is currently a bifurcated user experience.

Let me explain.

A Vignette

You and I are in New York City and we need a wifi connection. So, where’s the nearest hot spot? Almost by instinct, we point our mobile browser to www.nyc.gov and launch a search for “wifi”.  Not surprisingly, we get back a ton of hits. More than 5000, in fact. From that result set, we’re left with the frustrating exercise of creating a user experience in our brain, on the fly - stitching together various data sets and a mental map of where we could go. We see a listing page for ‘Wifi hot spots in NYC Parks’. But we need a quiet working environment, so that’s not ideal.  We’re thinking coffee shop, but we don’t see any listing pages for private businesses. So, we do the usual drill of bouncing between listing pages to triangulate an answer to a simple question.

screenshot of google search for NYC Wifi

After 5 minutes, we give up.

map of NYC wifi locations

What we did not know is that the NYC open data portal includes a data set of all NYC wifi hot spots – owned by the city and private businesses – that are displayed on a single map. Here it is. And it’s interactive.

But since we’re not very technical people and we don’t know what the term ‘open data’ even means… we didn’t know to go to that site. We just went to our city’s official web site. Can you blame us?

Toward a more Integrated Experience

As citizens, we benefit greatly from the many government web sites and open data portals that are now available to us! But as the wifi example above illustrates (and there are many more like it), there is a huge opportunity before us to better integrate the user experience across “traditional” web content and “new” open data portals. Users need good content and fast. If they’re on a government web site, they should be able to access raw data sets and interactive visualizations in a context sensitive way. So, if I’m looking at a site page written summary of annual expenditures, I should be able to click right into a comprehensive data set that allows me to explore and analyze that expenditure data.  I don’t want to “swivel chair” over to the open data portal and start a new search experience. This is the bifurcated user experience that we need to address.

How will we do this?

By using proven content strategy and user experience design techniques to connect data sets and web content, and by building open source tools that make it easy to integrate data portal content into traditional web site pages.  We’re working on this actively at Phase2.

Drupal, OpenPublic, and Socrata

As an example, we are partnered with Socrata and have built a Drupal module that provides an integration point for Socrata within Drupal via Socrata’s SODA2 interface. Rob Bates - a Senior Developer at Phase2 will be doing a companion blog post to this one to walk through some of the design and implementation aspects of this integration.

This Saturday, Rob will be presenting a session about this at DrupalCamp Atlanta , called ‘Drupal + Socrata: Open Data for the Masses!’ If you’ll be at the event, I’d suggest checking this one out. He’ll be opening the hood on this.

I believe strongly that now is the time to address the bifurcation problem by building more integrated experiences for users. The wave of open source CMS in government is washing ashore. And open data is exploding. As investments are made on each of these fronts, we should incorporate this unifying design concept early in the discussion. As taxpayers, we’ll benefit by way of: better content and by better use of taxpayer dollars. Stay tuned for Rob's blog post about the technical details of integrating Socrata into Drupal coming soon!

Greg Wilson