Top 10 Problems with GEDS
5 years after writing this blog post, most of the concerns I raised have been addressed. The URLs are still horrible, but GEDS is in a much more usable state now.
OpenConcept works for several federal government departments and we often need to find contact information for government staff. For those of you who may not know the GEDS is the Government Electronic Directory Services and is the federal government's main public staff directory. It's also been a source of frustration for many so I thought I'd outline some of the things that something like this could do and how it would help everyone who wants to contact people in their government.
This is a website that is trying to deliver an:
"important element of the information technology infrastructure necessary for the implementation of future government information and electronic commerce services."
So I decided to write down a list of things that would help them fulfill this mission. It's just a few quick thoughts, but it would do so much more than the current site does. Please feel free to add comments with more suggestions.
1) Make the Search Work
I expect that most people go to GEDS to search for a person that they want to contact, so let's make that as easy as possible. The form should be smart enough to know that if you search for 613-999-0101, you're searching for a phone number. It should assume "FirstName LastName" unless there is a comma, in which case it would search "LastName, FirstName". If someone puts in CRA-ARC, and no name comes up the search engine should at the very least do a 2nd search for organization, role or title for that content. It might also be good to do fuzzy searches, particularly if you were searching for "Nathan McDonald" and his last name was actually MacDonald for instance.
Furthermore, the form itself should be clearly clearly differentiated between the simple search & advanced search features. There's no reason why this should be complicated for the user. Every search result should also have the search bar at the top of it to allow you to refine your search without going back. If you wanted to get fancy it could be an AJAX form that would return the results in real time.
2) Visualize the Organization
The government is a huge organization. Having some sort of visual hierarchical presentation would really help understand the context of who you might be talking to. How many procurement officers are there? How does a procurement officer differ from a procurement agent (there's just the one in GEDS)? There is a general understanding of the hierarchy of positions in government that just doesn't extend to the average citizen, so why not provide a glossary?
Presenting a user with a straight hierarchy isn't an easy way to understand how a person fits within an organization and what their role actually is. There are lots of tools out there to help visualize an organizational chart, so let's make use of it.
3) Understandable Links
It's something that bugs me but a site should have Clean, Short, URL's. Even the sub-domain is more than most folks can remember (http://sage-geds.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca). Why not set it up so that as a central government resource that both (http://geds.gc.ca & http://sage.gc.ca) resolve to the site as well as the official sub-domain? Why not have the domain such that it makes sense & can easily be pasted in documents? Why not be able to find "John Smith" with a URL www.geds.gc.ca/John.Smith? Well, There are a few of them, so why not www.geds.gc.ca/John.Smith/PWGSC to avoid confusion?
Heck, if you type in just www.geds.gc.ca/Smith why not just automatically assume that the user is searching for someone with the last name smith & return the search results? Right now you get a missing page warning (404).
4) Use Vcards
We want ensure that people have the best information available for their contacts, so rather than having people cut/paste into their address books, why not have automatic Vcards generated for each user. Updating one's address book always takes time and it would save everyone a lot of time if it was just automated.
One could even set up an account so that you could monitor a person or a position and be emailed when there is a change. So if someone in your network switches positions or if the project manager changes you will be proactively alerted. That email alert would of course contain a direct link to the Vcard so that you could just download it directly.
5) Encourage Feedback
This directory claims to be up-to-date, and it might be, however that seems unlikely. I would like to see some form of instantaneous feedback form to inform admins of potential problems. Especially alerting admins of changed information (on an individual basis) would be useful. You might even have a form right on the page to suggest a correction. This would all need to be verified of course, but at least there is a way to encourage visitors to look for and point out problems.
Of course you'd also want to ask your visitors what other information they might want to be available. For instance there are government staff who twitter and at some point this is something government agencies will want to officially recognize.
6) Make it Understandable
This needs to be Human Readable. All acronyms should have links with expanded definitions & context. There should be no internal codes visible. One should have the option of having everything (including acronyms) being presented in English, French or both.
Any information presented should allow the visitor to put that staff person into context. Subtle use of blocks to contain the departmental information would be useful. Adding some visual elements to help contain the different types of information would be good. Wouldn't hurt to make the site look a lot better too!
7) Machines Also Need to Understand
This is a resource which should be open and available in machine readable formats. Why not have RSS feeds of new staff or recent changes? It would be great to have this data available XML so that it can be easily imported into other applications. Some lists could even be downloaded as a CSV (comma separated values) file if it were relevant. I'd like to see an API (application programming interface) that provides the ability to query the GEDS database directly.
Ideally GEDS would be a central resource with which all other government departments would add in their own information. There are privacy issues of course, but each department should be using GEDS as a central reference for their staff. A unique, machine readable GEDS identifier could be used to track an employee through their entire career with the public service. This could also be used as a basis if the Government of Canada sets up an organization wide social networking site.
8) Add Geodata
Another huge (and relatively easy) tool would be to include links to Gmaps from the address line so that would be great from the address line so that people can easily see where the person is based. If that information were provided in a machine readable format you would be able to actually plot on a map where different departments are around country.
Of course it doesn't have to be Gmaps and I'd be even happier if the Government of Canada were contributing to tools like Open Street Maps. With centralized information like this it might be possible to look at finding better ways to organize car pooling within the public service.
9) Character Sets Matter
It may seem pretty simple, but all of the characters should be in unicode. This won't look any different to the users when it is displayed correctly, but will save us having to see the strange when it isn't. It can be technically challenging to switch character encoding, so why not settle on UTF8 which is flexible enough to meet all of our character set requirements here in Canada (including the Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics)
10) Mobile Friendly
The site should be mobile friendly. Whether it's by blackberry, iPhone or regular cell phone, people should be able to browse to GEDS & immediately provided an opportunity to punch in a search request. It needs to be simplified so that people are given direct links to the most relevant information.
It is less common for people now not to have a cell phone, so let's provide tools that address that reality.
And finally (yes, this could also be viewed as #11), it's just silly that every link on the site has the highlighted text replicated in the title. This makes it look horrible and provides no additional accessibility. At worse for some screen readers this approach makes the site less accessible. Title tags should not duplicate the content of the link that an anchor tag surrounds.
It often useful to provide tool tips with additional information or context explaining where a given link will take you. Providing the full title for a department in a title tag would be so much more useful than simply replicating the acronym that it is liked from.
Update (June 2): How could I have forgotten OpenID? I've advocated before for an OpenID server for the gc.ca, but would be great to have it integrated with GEDS. The next thing is that it's just silly that GEDS doesn't manage pagination. Try searching for 'Smith'. This isn't all that tricky to do!
Remeber to add any comments to anything I've forgotten to add.
About The Author
Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.