The case for reimagining data

I have had a blog post half written about transparency and opening government data for a couple of weeks, but the words aren’t yet saying what I want them to – it needs a bit more focused concentration than I have been able to give it.

While I have been musing, a new and superb example both of the power of opening data for reuse and of the power of design has emerged, though one which has nothing to do with government data at all.  It comes instead from the Guardian’ Open Platform, which among other things allows developers access to Guardian content through an API.

Phil Gyford has used the API to create an entirely new view of the Guardian, a view with the extraordinary beauty which only comes from radical simplicity.

The Guardian’s website – and its home page in particular – has some big challenges. It’s the way in to a rich set of rapidly changing material, much of it closely linked with the print edition, but an increasing proportion complementing the print edition without being part of it.  Trying to provide a window on to all of that results in a front page which is often arresting but can only be described as busy.  At a rough count, there are about 200 links on that one page.

Phil’s version could not be more different.

There is no agonising over which of those 200 links to click.  A single story appears on the screen. The only choice is whether to read it or to move on to the next one. A minimalist but information rich indicator at the top of the page shows where you are in the structure of the newspaper and allows you to move between sections, but not between individual stories.  There is a link back to the story on the Guardian’s own site.  And that is it.

This powerful simplicity is not accidental. Phil has written a fascinating essay on the thinking behind his design choices, built around the concepts of friction, readability and finishability.

I find those arguments pretty compelling.  But that isn’t the point of my writing about this alternative Guardian.  The essential point is not whether you like it, or like it better than the Guardian’s own version; it is that it exists at all.  It may be that only a tiny minority of people share Phil’s mental model of how news is best consumed.  I have no doubt at all that the Guardian has very good reasons for preferring the very different model which underpins its own web presence, but precisely because of the way it has chosen to address the large part of its audience, it cannot reach the smaller part with the same effectiveness.  The Guardian’s self confidence in opening its API makes that much less important, though. There doesn’t have to be a single solution, because the tools permit of many  – and not only permit, but encourage and support.

I cannot remember the last time I came across a website which gave me the sense of absolute rightness which this one instills. It has instantaneously become my preferred way of consuming news on the web. I hope you share that same sense of excitement.  But even if you don’t, you can share in the richness of opportunity which allows it to exist.

I do though have a gripe.  Just a small one. The Phil Gyford Guardian is perfectly formed to work on a mobile phone screen – except that the ‘next story’ links don’t appear in two of the Android browser I tried and don’t work properly in the third. If that could be fixed, this really would be the perfect site.

Much more importantly though, this act of creativity sets the challenge for big organisations with many pressures and with roots in an earlier world – whether they are newspapers or governments.  To its great credit, the Directgov syndication pilot is now live.  Like the Guardian’s site, Directgov is built on a mental model of how its parts should fit together. That model probably works for many people, but certainly will not work for all.  Alternative Directgovs, built on alternative organisational concepts, will make for a better overall experience.  Let us hope that Directgov is as fortunate in those who rise to the challenge as the Guardian has been.

Comments

  1. Yes, the ‘official’ version of a site, be in The Guardian or Directgov, has to work hard to balance diverse needs. And, despite insight, user testing, UX etc, it will be a compromise.

    So in the spirit of the open data, it’s great to see this reimagining – especially the use of ‘content as data’ rather than raw data.

    I think the role of official publishers will increasingly be that of custodians and curators of information. In a government context that means ensuring authoritative information is easily findable and consumable and its provenance is clearly labelled

  2. Thanks for the kind words Mr Strategist. I don’t expect the site to be to everyone’s taste because, as you say, people read the news in many different ways. Hopefully it’s just right for a number of people who couldn’t find anything that satisfied them before. I expect there are other possible solutions for other groups of people who are currently not served well. There should be (and could be, thanks to the API) many different ways of reading the same content.

    Better mobile phone action should be done soon — I’m working on it at the moment — although as I only have an iPhone, it’ll be luck if it also works well on Android…

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