New ONS website hits choppy water

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The Office for National Statistics relaunched its website on August 28, after years of criticism of the old one. But alas, all has not gone entirely to plan.

A statement posted on the website on Friday by Stephen Penneck, Director General of the ONS (pictured), concedes that users have come across a wide range of problems. He acknowledges that the website is not giving the service “you, or we, would like”.

He lists six “priority issues”, which includes improving the format of datasets (Time Series Data) in Excel which currently mixes together monthly, quarterly and annual data. The four digit codes (CDIDs) will be included in the dataset downloads, and a series of redirects to key information will be added to ease the transition to the new website.

The Key Figures page will be improved, as will the search function so that it returns the most relevant results. (I long ago gave up using the search function on the old website, as it had the habit of sending one round in a circle. It was quicker to Google the subject and add ONS to the search line.)

Finally, says a humbled Mr Penneck, a complete review of the site is identifying and recreating missing content and fixing broken links.

Other criticisms include separating the data tables from the statistical bulletins, done so as to make re-use of the tables easier and provide a printer-friendly version. Lots of people, it seems, liked the old PDF format in which tables were interspersed with text. Mr Penneck says this form of presentation may return, alongside the reusable datasets.

There are lots of good things about the new website, he says, including a better server, a more logical structure to documents, a better look and feel, and better accessibility. The trouble is nobody is getting the benefit of these because the other problems are obscuring them.

It’s easy to mock at IT hiccups, especially as this is the second apology from Mr Penneck in less than a week, but I’ll resist the temptation. Getting a complex website working perfectly is not an easy task. If it’s not fixed in six months, though, there’ll be trouble.

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