Surfing with Ed on the Internet…

by Ed Swires-Hennessy, Local Government Data Unit - Wales

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


It has long been my intention to review the statistical web site of Belgium ( but correspondence with someone in the office suggested waiting until .. more and more improvements. Having waited for several years and knowing that web sites are never ‘perfect’, I decided to review it this month. To find the site, I used Google search with ‘Statistics, Belgium and Official’ as search terms: how heartening to find that the relevant home page is the first entry of the returned links! Essentially the link is a splash page – so the user can choose the preferred language within the site: I note 4 languages available! Hovering over the language buttons changes some of the displayed text to that language.




The splash page is inviting – and I followed the English link to a page that is almost within the boundaries of the screen. This page is clean but obviously is awaiting further development – noted just below the top navigation (which has some unconnected links). As one would expect the French and Dutch versions are complete. There appears a tendency in the complete version to cram as much into the home page as possible – so the lists of publications and recent press notices are continuous strings of links/ links and dates.


The more complete sites are developing portals for different subject areas. The portal for Health on the French site is a full 9 screens long, admittedly with a bookmark section at the top is there to aid the user. However, the bookmark on risk in the middle section takes the user to a list 3 screens long! The power of the web is not being used here to facilitate ease of use.


Info Flashes are relatively detailed reports – with a major summary at the top – that have links at the bottom to further data and information. They are HTML documents, quick loading and have an interesting photograph alongside the first paragraph.




Navigation is generally clear and consistent. However, the use of bookmarks within pages is difficult enough when one uses them to go through an article: when they are used to navigate through 3 columns on a page, it is not as clear. The major disadvantage of long pages with bookmarks is that the whole page has to be loaded before all bookmarks are active: for long pages it is thus much neater to provide the user with just sufficient to read / follow at one time: so for an article of 50 pages with 5 chapters, it is better to provide the user with two options; a download of the whole or a list of links to the five chapters. Selecting the chapter of interest then loads that chapter.


Data formatting


Within press notices and other prepared material, tables of data use the full stop as a thousands separator: in text a space is used; the comma is used in both for a decimal separator. However, in data tables provided in Excel spreadsheets, the comma is used as a thousands separator and a full stop as a decimal separator. Consistency would assist the user.


I followed the Statistics link on the top navigation to my favourite themes of population and inflation on the French site (statistics are not linked on the English home page). For population, I was presented with another bookmarked list. The population pyramid for the country as a whole has a drop down year selector – and 1881 population structure is very different from that of today! The second bookmark takes on to a very poorly presented list of different tables that are available. The other tables, in HTML format, are clear and easy to extract.


For inflation (indice des prix á la consummation), I was presented with a table that only provided data to 2003. A link at the bottom of the table took me to a more recent table with data to May 2006 and a column headed ‘Inflation’! Keeping such HTML (fixed) tables up to date has to be a priority.




Within the Road Traffic accident press notice (French version) the table and charts are landscape presentation within a portrait document which does not allow the whole to be displayed on a single screen: this forces the user to print out the document to fully understand its meaning; portrait presentation could have been achieved relatively easily. The charts exaggerate the speed of increase at the start of the displayed period as the data are at 5-year intervals not single year as for the rest of the charts. Further the y-axis scales do not show the standard presentation for numbers.


Information leaflets are available in the two major languages in PDF format – but without a link to black and white printable image. Printing the colour version on a black and white printer is not ideal if pale shades of a colour are used on shaded areas!


Even though some of these press notices are large files, their size is not noted to the user before download. However, within the statistical area, Excel files generally do have a size indicated.




The site is obviously still in development (but has been for many years). Some major issues are apparent such as data formatting and information delivery.


One really good feature for anyone interested in information on different countries is the country portal (Le portail des Pays on the French site) which links to a consistent – but extensive - set of information, including the statistics web site, for most countries of the world.


This review was undertaken using Internet Explorer version 6.0 on 8June at 09.00 hrs GMT using a 2 Mbit link to the Internet on a Pentium 4 1.7 GHz machine.


Please send and comments and suggestions for sites to review to