Monday, January 04, 2010

Digital Make-Over

Today, Sunlight Labs, one of the groups thinking about issues of transparency and online access to information from government records, asks its readership "What do you think of"

The site is supposed to provide the master navigation for those seeking information from and about the federal government, but -- as the lab's posting from a year ago about "Rethinking" indicates -- it was desperately in need of a make-over to improve its Bush-era incarnation. They raised a number of criticisms with which I am in hearty agreement, particularly about the foregrounding of idiotic content from so called "kids pages" and the market segmentation that it assumes, which can make its portal architecture illogical. Designer Ali Felski admits that "any personalization of a site would clearly have security and privacy concerns," but I am surprised that the Sunlight people aren't reminding people that has also had an active role in tryint to dismantle a longstanding anti-cookie policy, which could be particularly troubling, given the Obama's administration's use of Google products and how third-party commercial interests could gain access to citizens' personal data about web surfing habits without their knowledge.

The official call from the Obama administration for feedback on the site is here, which is equipped with a Digg-style thumbs up/down feature, but few commentators at this point seem to be addressing actual user design issues. The search engine certainly is better at providing results, but it is still almost as bad as it used to be for people in crisis as it was in the days when one couldn't find resources if you were a witness to human trafficking. Getting to repositories of online forms or useful FAQs assumes a lot of web literacy and would be very difficult for non-native speakers of English. I don't think personalization would help this problem and might discourage whistle-blowers and others in need of information about their rights and available services.

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