Looks Do Matter: Data.Gov’s User Friendly Information Portal

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.”

CaptureWhat 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.

Browse TopicsNow, 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.]


Learning with Lynda.com

Finally, you’ve located the software you need. Now, how to use it.

The ever broadening world of software, programs, applications, coding languages, and technical services can be hard to keep up with. Youtube can be a great option when you want a quick fix of how to convert file formats, install things, and the like. However, if you’re looking for a well-made tutorial that will walk you through learning a piece of software, look no further. Lynda.com is a subscription service available through the library with your netID.

What can it teach me? Lynda offers courses on much of the software available in the Scholarly Commons in categories of Animation, Music, Business, CAD, Design, Developer, Education, Marketing, Photography, Video, and Web.  Although there are hundreds of tutorials on specific software, they also feature tutorials on learning discipline specific fundamentals and principles. Lynda also remembers which tutorials you watched and displays an eye-icon next to them so that next time you’ll know where you left off. No need to watch a whole series though if you just want to learn a particular feature. Tutorials are often broken down into specific items or features that you might want to use (e.g. how to sort tables in Excel).

Where can you find it? Lynda is available through all three campuses and the different links are listed below. Once you’re logged in though, finding the software you need is a simple search in the search box or navigating their tutorial catalog.

Whether you’re looking to update your software skills, want to explore an application before deciding to purchase it, or need to learn some programming for your research project, Lynda.com is a great place to start.

See your Website or Software App from the User’s Perspective

Increasingly, Computer Scientists, Social Scientists, Designers, and Developers have been conducting research in human-computer interaction (HCI). This trend has become so pervasive that Stanford University is now offering a free online course in HCI. One of the main tools of HCI is usability testing. While usability testing comes out of a broader design perspective and can be applied to any product or tool, its application in software and web development is fast becoming a fundamental part of the developmental life-cycle of digital products. In HCI, usability testing involves observing users as they navigate an interface. Even a test with a small number of participants can improve the usability of a piece of software or website. These small scale tests, while not statistically significant, can be used to seek out weak points in interface design and fix bugs. Larger scale tests can be used as parts of controlled experiments by researchers to more broadly study the interactions of people and the machines they depend upon or by software and hardware manufacturers whose products must be tailored to increasingly demanding consumers.

If you would like to better understand your website or software application from the user’s point of view, the Scholarly Commons has a small lab available for conducting usability studies. The lab is equipped with usability testing software and hardware and staff who can assist with its use. These services are available for free to University of Illinois students, faculty, and staff members. In addition, Cites is beginning to offer fee-based usability testing services that draw on the expertise of their user experience staff and include a wider variety of testing methodologies, including card sorting–modeling digital navigation with paper cards–and accessibility evaluation.

For more information on usability testing see:
The Scholarly Commons’ usability testing page
CITES’ usability consulting page

Try your hand at iPhone and iPad app development

The Undergraduate Library is hosting two workshops in December to help the campus community get started with app development.

The beginners workshop will take place on December 6th, Room 289, Undergraduate Library, 6:30-8:00pm.

The advanced workshop will take place December 7th, in Room 289, Undergraduate Library 6:30-8:00pm.

More details and registration information are available at the Undergrad Library.


Researchers access library on the go

The library continues to enhance its mobile website. Researchers can now access the following features at http://m.library.illinois.edu with a mobile Web browser:

  • Searching the library catalog & requesting materials.
  • Renewing materials on your account & checking request status.
  • Locating material on physical or electronic reserve (the ability to read PDFs of e-reserve documents will vary, however, depending one’s mobile device and on the properties of the document).
  • Library locations.
  • Ask-A-Librarian, which includes the functionality to send an SMS text message to the Library (on compatible phones)
    Limited library database access.

Plus, take a peek at experiments in progress in the mobile labs section.