So sometime yesterday evening the Alphagov ‘experimental prototype’ was released into the wild and this morning my Twitter stream is full of buzz about it – which in the main seems positive.
Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a site preview and opportunity to meet some of the team so I had an idea of what to expect and got an insight into the thinking behind the site. Some of this has since been covered in a series of blog posts on the AlphaGov blog and I think they are covering some really interesting ground which if the project is a success (and I think it deserves to be) it could/should open up some opportunities for the rest of us webby types in the public sector.
I was especially taken with the ‘design rules‘ which I think I’ll refer back to time and time again in the future. The idea of ‘Google as a homepage‘ is a concept I’ve been banging on about for a while to anyone who will listen (inspired originally by Tony Hirst I think) so it is nice to see it given some attention elsewhere. My favourite rule though was ‘optimise for the common case‘ and the idea that ‘not all content is created equal’. Trying to get people to realise that just because *they* think something is important doesn’t mean anyone else does has been an ongoing struggle for me over the last decade and a project like this that used data to prioritise and organise content will hopefully help back up my case when I attempt something similar (on a much smaller scale!).
There was a bit of fuss over the weekend about the Accessibility blogpost which I am in two minds about. I absolutely agree that accessibility should be built in from the start of every new web project and so think Dominic and the others are probably correct – however I think if the Alphagov team hadn’t mentioned it most people would have felt the site was already more accessible in real terms than alot of the .gov sites out there simply because it has been well designed (in the broadest sense) and thus works well on a number of levels.
There is alot to love about AlphaGov in my opinion. I think it looks great for a start (superficial I know!) and the thought given to the little functional applications throughout the prototype gives you a feel for how much *easier* things could be. The URLs are lovely as well – but that probably has a bit of a niche, geek only appeal 🙂 The idea that it is search driven (with the nice auto-suggest functionality) seems to mesh with my preconceptions of how people use the site. I also like the idea that Ministeral roles are broken down by title not name (as the people change so often!).
I also think the fact they were able to pull together a talented, multi-disciplinarly team to build the alpha ‘in-house’ despite procurement rules making this difficult is a good sign. Though the fact that the 10 week project has apparently cost £261k ex VAT means it doesn’t seem like it is the sort of thing that is going to catch on at the more cash-strapped end of the public sector!
In fact my biggest worry about the project is its sustainability. I think a brilliant ‘demo’ has been built by very talented and experienced team. However they are not a team who are going to stick around for the long haul of turning things into a production service. If things are going to move forward who is going to replace this great team? Is government going to need a proper in-house multi-disciplanary web team (like say the BBC or the Guardian)? If that was to happen given the current limitations on recruitment would you get people of anywhere near the same caliber?