Thursday, December 22, 2005

Are Those Who Can't Surf the Web Drowning?

If you are reading Dickens this Christmas or contemplating how to alleviate mass misery in your own community, it's worth considering how better information design could counteract the general Scrooginess of government websites that serve the most desperate and needy.

Recently, I encountered a story in the Los Angeles Times called "Program to Fight Human Trafficking is Underused" about how the T-Visa program is hardly getting any takers, despite the fact that it grants victims of forced confinement or involuntary servitude a three-year visa to encourage them to testify against their captors.

My first thought was that the website for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services probably wasn't well designed for workers from Third World and former Soviet countries seeking to escape the makeshift cells, brothels, sweatshops, and restaurant kitchens where they're held against their will. And I was right. The site was almost impossible to navigate with an overly long FAQ organized by arcane alphabetized entries. (Going back, I figured out that the relevant information should have been under "V" for "victim," although the Victim Witness Brochure that might have explained everything went to a dead link.)

The search features weren't any better. "T-Visa" in the search box output this tongue-twister of a top result: "Abstract: Provisions of the Immigration Act of 1990. The Immigration Act of 1990 revised the numerical limits and the preference categories used to regulate legal immigration. It also established several transitional programs that ended in FY 94. The Act's primary provisions are summarized below."

"Servitude" and "Trafficking" and "Forced Labor" produced a similarly confusing list of complex regulations and immigration history PR. At least when I put it baldly and entered the word "Slavery," I was directed to these nifty civics flashcards! (And I knew almost all the answers too!)

In other words, if I were an English-speaking, highly literate, technophile who had just escaped from a "safe" house and wanted to tell the authorities that there were a bunch of coyotes in a nondescript tract home in a suburban community who were amusing themselves by mailing their hostages' fingers to their loved ones back in El Salvador to extort more ransom, I'd have no way to find out about the T-Visa program.

It's true that many people in dire situations have no access to a computer with an Internet connection . . . but there might be a relative, friend, priest, community worker, or legitimate employer who does. There's no excuse for bad information design.

After reading another LA Times story, "Seniors Not Told of Drug 'Bridge,'" I noticed that even a week after the story broke when abashed officials promised a mass mailing to notify low-income seniors of a program for which it was already too late to get the full 100 day benefit before expiration at year's end, information providers still weren't plugging it on the Medi-Cal site that served those very same clients. (This site also includes the worst online tutorial I have ever seen!)

At the risk of not being taken seriously, I'd suggest putting things like BEING HELD CAPTIVE? or OUT OF MONEY FOR MEDICINE? in easy-to-find navigation bars on these sites.

In the good news department:
  • See November 18 of this blog for a list of real rarities: user-friendly federal government sites.
  • On November 25th in this blog, you can read about how the Mexican government provided far more useful information about human trafficking to its citizens.
  • Yesterday's blog is also about another unusually well-designed government page, as is the blog from December 12th. It is interesting that both of these sites appeal to popular political issues for law-and-order constituencies.



Blogger Julia Lupton said...

I love the civics flashcards! A classic "print genre" translated to the Internet (sort of). I wonder how common these are on governmental sites.

7:10 AM  

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