I’ve actually got a lot of sympathy for the team at the Office for National Statistics today. This morning should have seen the release of the monthly unemployment numbers; but due (apparently) to ‘a computer error on automated systems’, they leaked out yesterday – and ONS took the decision to bring forward the official publication. Bearing in mind the market sensitivity of the data, I can imagine the scenes.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was in charge of the web team(s) at ONS for a couple of years, from 2002. It was one of the most frustrating periods of my career: for all my best efforts, my vision of web-friendly database publication went unrealised. Instead, the current National Statistics website is still fundamentally the same 6-month stop-gap site I pushed through in 2002. I don’t know about the underlying data-crunching systems, but I see no evidence of there having been any improvement since I left. They were inadequate then, and they look even more inadequate this morning.
Instead, improvements to government statistics online now seem to be centred on something called the Publication Hub. In effect, it’s a big catalogue of government statistical releases – most of which are still located on the originating department’s website, and are still being delivered as PDF or Excel files. User-friendly it ain’t, placing the priority on ‘metadata’ (which, in statistical terms, means lengthy written explanations of methodology) rather than the actual data. Most people will struggle to find any numbers whatsoever.
There are some appalling quirks: for example, if you press the button to see the homepage button for the ‘next 30 days’ of scheduled statistical releases, you see day 30 first, and have to click two or three times to get to day 1 (ie tomorrow). And whilst it’s good to see RSS has been taken into account, it’s impossible to work out what’s meant to be included in the feed each time you see the orange icon.
I left ONS five years ago because I didn’t believe senior management recognised that the world had changed. In my letter of resignation, I suggested the Office was ‘five years behind the times’. Another five years on, if this Publication Hub is the answer, they still haven’t understood the question… and we’ll have to rely on third parties.