On 17 & 18 September (2007), I attended a conference in Canberra, the "4th Annual Web Content Management for Government Conference" and presented a paper on the second day. Here, for what they're worth, are some of my notes, observations and thoughts arising:
James Robertson, Step Two Designs
According to James, the CMS Industry is still in a period of growth and is immature. There are at least 140 products available and 120 of these are locally produced. The technology is still diverging, rather than converging.
James made an interesting claim that workflow doesn't work, because it is usually too complex and ambitious.
Improving online citizen and community services by effective web content management
Jim Higgins, Chief Executive, New Zealand Local Government Online
Jim claimed that using online chat for public enquiries can service 6 times more people than the telephone, because the one staff member can theoretically communicate with a number of people in parallel.
An interesting idea was the 'warm website', where someone browsing may get a live message appear on their screen: "Can I help you?" from someone monitoring the site. Many people felt that this would be seen by many web visitors as intrusive, even creepy. Maybe a compromise would be to offer a button for visitors to click for help when someone was available.
The FaCSIA Guides IIS Project
Brendan Dalton, Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCSIA)
"Australia's largest web publishing project of 2007 [was] The FaCSIA Guides IIS Project. With over 400,000 pages, this website provides... information on Social Policy and Entitlements and is used by legislators, lawyers, politicians and citizens."
Brendan showed a system that converts huge batches of structured Word documents into a series of linked web pages, with an index. The process was iterative, meaning that on the first pass, most documents would be processed successfully but some errors would be reported. The identified problem documents would be fixed and another pass would be made. The errors would get less and less each time, until eventually all documents would be converted.
Making websites accessible and functional for a diverse community
Dr. Andrew Arch, Manager Online Accessibility Consulting, Vision Australia
"Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web, more specifically it means they can:
• perceive, understand and navigate the Web
• interact with the Web
• contribute to the Web"
Andrew explained that there are a number of other beneficiaries when a website id made accessible. Eg:
• People using PDAs, web phones etc
• People with old equipment
• People working in restricted access environments
• People with temporary impairments
• People coping with environmental distractions
• People with poor literacy
• Older people
• New users
Andrew pointed out that it was important for web pages to declare themselves to be in English, for the sake of screen readers.
Screen readers may also have a problem with AJAX because the updates are sometimes not noticed by the software.
The proper treatment of links and forms (interactive elements) is important:
• Don't rely on colour
• If the link is to a large file (e.g. PDF), explain this within the link text, not outside it. Otherwise those who tab through from link to link will miss that bit of information.
• Make sure the size of the text entry box changes as well as the label.
Andrew also said that drag and drop is possible in Flash using just a keyboard. (Adobe has a section of its website devoted to accessibility but I have been unable to find anything specifically on keyboard-controlled drag and drop yet.)
Managing public sectors’ websites interface language and elements – do users and the public understand you?
Kerry Webb, InTACT, ACT Government
Kerry talked about the unique position of a government website: For many there is no effective competition. But on the other hand, a government website cannot choose its audience. This flies in the face of the usual marketing obsession with target audiences and demographics.
How to avoid getting ripped off when implementing a CMS
Tom Voirol, Reading Room Australia
Tom divided the CMS market using three dimensions:
• page-based versus component-based
• tactical [limited life] versus strategic [ongoing life]
• coupled [live server reaches back to the CMD database] versus decoupled [live server runs independently of the CMS db]
Two methods were presented to help decide on a CMS (or anything): Preference matrix + value benefit analysis.
Designing usable Web 2.0 applications to improve the citizen-centric approach
John-Paul Syriatowicz, Squiz.net
J-P introduced Web 2.0 as a semantic cloud of related technologies (including blogging, RSS, podcasts, personalisation, AJAX, folksonomies and mashups) and concepts. One of these concepts was the evolution of the Web into an 'application'. From a 'return-on-investment' point of view, employing Web 2.0 and social networking can be worthwhile, because of its "viral" nature, in which connections, and content, can theoretically increase exponentially (1 => 2 => 4 => 8 => 16 => ...).
J-P pointed out that blogging is more than just a technology. (After all, it would be possible to 'simulate' most aspects of a blog using static HTML.) The key feature of a blog – which can be both a strength and a weakness – is the set of expectations that come with it. People expect blogs to be frequently updated and to have a kind of 'personality'. Some organisations create a blog when a forum would be more appropriate. J-P also made the point that blogs have a surprising real-world impact, a "strange authority".
The essence of RSS is the distributing of content in a format-neutral way. It is anonymous (unlike an e-newsletter) because anyone can subscribe without the content-creator knowing.
Podcasting (including vodcasting) is an extension of RSS. It is usually thought of as 'cool' – a nice add-on – but J-P pointed out that it can actually be part of an accessibility solution.
J-P made two interesting warnings about personalisation. If the appearance and content of a page changes according to visitors' preferences: what should the organisation store as part of its record-keeping, and how can the page be reliably proofed (since meaning often relies on context)?
Discussion: Centralised versus decentralised content publishing
As an exercise, the room was initially divided into two, with one side instructed to argue the case that all web content should be managed by one central web unit and the other side instructed to argue that all web content should be managed in a decentralised way. Not surprisingly, when we were allowed to discuss freely, the consensus was that both make sense in different contexts. Basically, it depends on how often content is updated: if infrequently, centralised management is more effective; if frequently, decentralised management is probably more effective. Many organisations could benefit from some sort of hybrid arrangement.
Making the most of your digital assets and virtual tour online - a museum case study
With the rise of Web 2.0 many websites are moving beyond simple information presentation and evolving into spaces for online collaboration. I asked what special implications this has for a government agency, particularly a cultural, scientific or educational organisation, such as a museum. Would allowing the public to contribute website content erode its reputation of authority? I used the Art Gallery's myVirtualGallery project as a case study, to examine these issues.
My full paper is available online.