Helsinki, UN and Certain Surveys.

United Nations (UN) just released their survey about municipal websites, world wide. Actual title was “Digital Governance in Municipalities Worldwide (2007) ~ A Longitudinal Assessment of Municipal Websites Throughout the World” (PDF-link!).

What was the survey about? (Bolding by yours truly, quotes from the summary part of the survey) In the survey they “evaluated the websites of municipalities in terms of digital governance and ranked them on a global scale”. Cities and nations were selected as follows: “The top 100 most wired nations were identified using data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)…”.  and “The largest city, by population in each of these 100 countries was then selected for the study and used as a  surrogate for all cities in the respective country…”

To summarize: top 100 most wired nations were under inspection, of which biggest cities’ websites were evaluated. Helsinki is the most crowded city in Finland, so Helsinki’s website (www.hel.fi) was evaluated.

Five components were evaluated:

  1. Privacy/Security;
  2. Usability;
  3. Content;
  4. Services; and
  5. Citizen Participation

I’ll leave other aspects alone and concentrate on the second component, usability. On the survey they examined “three types of websites: traditional web pages, forms, and search tools”. Sounds like a good selection to me, although in my opinion those are just parts of one website. What was then, in fact, evaluated? Branding, structure, consistency (colours, navigational elements etc.), requirements stated (clearly), availability of sitemaps and alternative versions for documents, basic forms’ usability, search tools and so on. Quite good a selection (imho), again.

In the content-component they also evaluated the “Bobby compliance” (sic!) or access to web site via a TDD Phone Service. (Side notes: Bobby was originally “a free online tool provided by the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) used to validate websites for WAI and Section 508 compliance” (Wikipedia). At 2005 it became “Watchfire WebXACT” -tool (still free to use online) and was finally integrated by IBM at 2008 and is nowadays part of IBM’s Rational Policy Tester Accessibility Edition and therefore not available for free use.)

In the usability section Helsinki was ranked fourth overall and in the content section sixth overall. Not too bad, eh? About Helsinki was said: “Helsinki increased in its overall score and its ranking
significantly from those in 2005 and 2003. Helsinki was ranked 35th with a score of 34.62 in 2005 and was not ranked in the top five cities in any of the categories.” Now Helsinki is among top ten in four out of five categories (privacy, citizen participation, usability and content – if I’m not wrong).

Hooray for Helsinki and hooray for Finland, as the survey quite clearly states that “(The largest city, by population … was … ) used as a  surrogate for all cities in the respective country“. Points for Finland, not for Helsinki, I’d say, although finnish media wanted to state so (for example Helsingin Sanomat says that “Helsinki’s Website is the third best in the world” /  (HS: Helsingin verkkosivut ovat kolmanneksi parhaat maailmassa).To claim that Helsinki’s site is the 3rd best in the world is at best misleading and at worst just plain wrong.

Anyway, pretty nice results.

Why am I not pleased?

Helsinki’s site is in my opinion not as good as all this hype could lead us to believe. Good, yes, they’ve done a lot of work, but still! The URI structure is awful (take http://www.hel.fi/wps/portal/Helsinki?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/Helsinki/fi/Etusivu as an example), layout is table-based, front page has a lot of HTML errors and so on. Quite minor things, have to give you that.

The thing I’m worried about at the moment is that the given UN Survey will now be used as a way to measure basic quality of web sites in Finland (“Survey says that www.hel.fi is the third best in the world!”) and the not-so-nicely-implemented features will be forgotten (at hel.fi and other sites, too). Quality of finnish sites has improved but is not that good when accessibility and usability are taken into account. Even technical quality can be questioned in many cases.

To sum things up: Helsinki (or actually Finland) scored pretty well on municipal websites survey. Overall quality is ok, but in my opinion not as superior as the media tends to say. we still have a lot to do!