My Ambitions for the Beta

The development team is in the building and the tip tapping of coding on custom keyboards fills the air so it is about time I tried to articulate some personal ambitions for this project.

[These aren’t necessarily the corporate objectives – though there is some cross over and clearly our commitment to ‘user driven development’ means they are subject to change based on research with real users.]

At the most simple level we are doing two things;

1) building a website
2) building a publishing platform to maintain that website

(I’m avoiding the entire content design, migration, archiving aspect on this occasion…)

I think actually my main ambition for the site is pretty much summed up by the ONS ‘vision’ from the strategy;

“To be widely respected for informing debate and improving decision making through high quality, easy to use statistics and analyses on the UK’s economy and society.”

I particularly am driven by the idea of;

“..informing debate and improving decision making”.

While we are not responsible for the ‘high quality, easy to use statistics and analyses’ we can ensure that statistics are easy to find, share and provide visualisations and tools that make them easier to understand. To provide a website that can inform debate and improve decision making in fact.

In order to make this happen we will continue to follow our ‘rules of engagement’ and the GDS Service Standard.

Beyond this though while GDS talk about ’Simpler, clearer, faster.’ we have our own focusing statement;

“Data intense. Design simple.”

[with thanks to Edward Tufte]

Following a long tradition that traces back to Florence Nightingale (more on her later) the site seeks to present statistics alongside clear commentary, charts and visualisations that add context and clarity to help convince. On this project it is ‘context that is king’.

The statistics are the focus – we surface the numbers (and the context that makes sense of them) on the web and do not hide them just in spreadsheets and documents.

Any website, especially Government websites, has a certain amount of content that it must publish for legal reasons, some for sensible legacy reasons and some that meets user needs beyond the core focus of the site. The balancing act will be fulfilling this without distracting from those core user needs.

The publishing platform needs to be able to support these lofty goals, be flexible enough to move with the times and changing user requirements, work within the security model and, importantly, cope with 09.30 publishing. No pressure then.

The platform, which I have code-named Florence because whether it is true or not I like the tale of Florence Nightingale using statistics and charts to make her points with Parliament back in the Crimea War, has some unusual requirements and constraints but it benefits from so much work done in the past. I talk about rather than it being an off the shelf CMS it will be a;

“Bespoke configuration of established open source components.”

This give us the flexibility to build something lightweight as far as possible, with full test coverage and plenty of scope for incremental improvements. Not to mention allows us to build on the lessons from people like GDS and the Guardian.

We are following the ‘minimal viable product’ approach for this aspect and will build just enough to support our initial needs. I’ve been known to refer to the likely outcome of this approach as a tool ‘so simple it is dangerous’ and I stand by that but it is a necessary step I think to ensure we don’t over engineer things (an issue I think most CMS projects face.)

There are things I am looking to add that are not unique but different from the standard web publishing tool. I’m still aiming to minimise (read stop) the use of DIY charts and stock images on the site so I will need a tool that lets publishers upload data and embed a chart (not dissimilar to Datawrapper, Charted or Chartbuilder) that will meet ONS standards, be responsive, shareable and allow the download of the data.

I am also interested in the potential flexibility something like the NPR dailygraphics rig could provide to our Digital Content team.

The last thing I’ll mention is my desire to implement the GOV.UK /info/ pages in some manner – especially the metrics element of this. I think it is a game changer in terms of transparency.

So I don’t want much then.