There has been a very positive trend in recent years toward e-government. Federal, state, and local governments have been making it possible to access services and documents on their web sites, which increases the quality and accessibility of their services while reducing their own staffing needs.
This is a welcome improvement and a perfectly natural progression for government services. However, it's still something of a wild west out there, and many governments make misguided decisions when bringing their services to the net. Take, for instance, Prince George's County (PG).
I recently needed to look up the specifics of some laws in PG. I discovered that the county has posted the entire contents of its code online. So far so good. After a few clicks I had navigated to the Subtitle and Subdivision that concerned me. Ah but at this point we find that it really is too good to be true. To read any single section (which actually contains the interesting text) within the Subdivision, you have to download a Word (!) document, which might contain an insultingly small amount of text, since sections themselves are typically short.
I can't fathom the design decision to make each section its own Word document, so I won't try. But what I can say is, besides being completely braindead, the web site is emphatically not accessible. First, in order to read any section of the law, you must have installed a document reader that is compatible with Microsoft Word. Until I upgraded my copy of OpenOffice to the latest, I was unable to even open these files. Second, I'm certain that this odd way of presenting the data causes a lot of problems for screen readers and probably gives the finger to blind people and anyone who uses accessibility software.
Of course, as I did for the StimulusWatch data, I'm immediately curious about the possibilities for scraping this data out of the web site. Spidering it is straightforward, so the interesting work will be in parsing the Word document and putting it into a nicer format. It might also be possible to just create a proxy web site that requests, converts, and displays the relevant sections on the fly. I'll add this to the list of interesting code problems for our POTS group. I think we could make something that would be far more useful, accessible, and less embarassing than the current Prince George's County web site.
20 hours ago