Why would it matter to a serious researcher whether an information portal has a well-designed interface? In most research circles, interfaces to collections of databases don’t need to be pretty. In fact, pretty might raise suspicions that the data is sub-standard: “What are they trying to cover up?” It’s all about the data, right? Yes, it’s about the data. But a pleasing and useful interface is no small matter. Researchers, app designers, and concerned citizens all know that the government is a source of important information, but I imagine more than a few have had unpleasant experiences trying to find and apply particular data.
As a portal to the U.S. government’s open data, Data.Gov is noteworthy. There, you’ll find “data, tools, and resources to conduct research, develop web and mobile applications, design data visualizations, and more.”
What is the scope of the data? You can search 192,917 data sets of U.S. government data related to agriculture, business, climate, consumer, ecosystems, education, energy, finance, health, local government, manufacturing, ocean, public safety, and science & research. Data.Gov includes databases from 77 agencies and sub-agencies as well as 492 non-governmental publishers.
How easy is it to navigate the site? The design is simple, clean, and intuitive. If you click a tab, expecting something like “X,” you’ll probably get something like “X” and more beside.
Perhaps the most helpful features are the search functions which are front and center on the home page. If you know what you’re looking for (sort of), just use the search box. Otherwise, you can use their browse topic feature which uses clear, picturesque icons. These topics are helpful to non-researchers exploring public affairs related issues, and they will also help seasoned researchers explore general topics of interest.
In the top right corner of every subsequent page, you’ll find the same search functionality as on the home page: a search text box and links to each of the major subareas below it. The browse topics feature (with its attractive icons) is readily accessible from the same area, using a drop down menu.
Now, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find exactly what you want. But it’s a good place to start. If you’re a data geek you’ll enjoy the exploration and perhaps discover something you didn’t know. Browse. Give it a try. You don’t need a blog to find your way.
[Scholarly Commons has two services that might be of use to those interested in government related data and/or usability. Data Services provides assistance with finding and formatting digital numeric and spatial data. The Usability Lab provides a space with two workstations for conducting usability studies.]