Surfing with Ed on the Internet…

by Ed Swires-Hennessy, UK Statistics Authority

Ed continues his appraisals of different national web sites to stimulate use of the Internet, share best practice and encourage debate.

The USA has been in our news this week with the visit of our Prime Minister to see the President. So I thought I would follow behind and take a peek at how the portal site of the US statistical agencies was progressing. This can be found at . What a brilliantly simple yet powerful page!

The Home page provides ten ways into the statistics which appear to cover every possible angle a user could think of. Topics provide essentially an index to the available data; choosing data by state returns three screens full of data for the selected state and for the US as a whole; by subject; by agency .. and a special kid’s page.

The navigation is simple and uses the basic blue for links – which makes this an easy site to follow and use quickly. The layout is simple but very effective. Few words are included on the Home page – just enough to get the meaning of the links.

For kids, over 40 different links are provided to special pages on agency websites, from science, nature, space, education and many more. The subjects for the statistics are organised into 14 themes in a drop-down selection.

So, looking for the standard statistics for my surfing, population and CPI should be easy. Here’s the first issue: population is not a subject. Choosing Demographics returns five screens’ worth of possibilities. Searching through does give population estimates in the Census Bureau on page 2. After five selections, I get to the data for the whole of the US: the order of the years is counter-intuitive, running backwards in time across the page. And having gone down a particular route, left the FedStats web site and finished up in the Census Bureau site, I have difficulty finding my way back  - unless I use the back button six times! Even then the FedStats logo is not hyperlinked: I do find, however the link back to the Home page. So I thought I would try the A-Z index route instead. This is easier as population is one of the list – and one can jump straight to ‘P’ from the alphabet at the top of the page. Selecting ‘Estimates’ gives a different version of a page with in the Census Bureau?! This route takes the user to the American Factfinder which allows the user to be specific about the data they want. The Census Bureau site has an extensive glossary and other meta-information to assist the user in understanding the data available and the definitions used. But when one is in the middle of the glossary, having checked several words, the only way out is to close the screen.

Back to the A – Z listing for the CPI. This leads to the Bureau of Labor Statistics page with a simple explanation of what the CPI is but with the latest data in the right-hand column. We have All items with three separate numbers and the introduction of the SA and NSA terms. Now I know what this means – but does the general user? A neat feature here is the use of a dinosaur logo to link to the historic information (as well as through the adjacent words and with a tool tip suggesting that the link will provide 10 years of historical data.

The FedStats portal does provide and excellent way in to the vast array of data available across the many agencies of the US government machine. It is perhaps unfair to compare it with a single NSI site. However, a decentralised NSI could gain much from looking through this site and leaning how to guide a variety of users in different ways to the statistics available. Given this specific architecture though, I would always want a more common look and feel across the various linked sites and a simple means of getting back to the FedStats home page.

Happy surfing ... and have a good summer.

This review was undertaken by Ed Swires-Hennessy using Internet Explorer version 7.0 on 24 July 2010 at 17.00 hrs GMT using a 20 Mb link to the Internet on a Pentium 4 1.7 GHz machine.

The views expressed in the review are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer. This and earlier reviews are published to my website, 

Please send and comments and suggestions for sites to review to