Friday, June 05, 2009

Worse than an error

I've been using website quality as a metric of the quality of an organization, and it has been surprisingly accurate. Organizations that put effort into their website tend to be customer focussed. A sloppy website means that either nobody uses the site or that the site owner doesn't care about the users.

I had heard that Indian census data was online, and I was always curious to find out what the Indian divorce rates are. So I visited the census site at You can see a picture of the website here. It is a very poor, shoddily designed website. A summer intern can do better with a day's work.

But what's better is not a single link works.

You can replace the server with a toaster and nobody would notice.

That entire website is worse than an error page!

Some of the links take you to the site. Let's ignore the two domains, maybe there is a strong reason to have two different domains for data. Let's focus on the content. I spent the next ten minutes clicking on links that don't work. Here is a collection of images of error screens I got. As before, most of the links have very sparse content, and many of the links result in errors.

Here is another error screen:

Despite having very little content, they did go through the effort of adding links for translation (through Google Translate). So you can view the website in any language. Given that you will be looking at error pages most of the time, here is the entire website summarized in Russian!

Those two sites are absolute user interface nightmares. The second website does have some useful data after you go through a hilarious registration screen. Instead of putting up a single data file, they have elaborate drop downs that show you information in nibble-sized chunks. The site does not contain links to actually download the data. But they do have CDROMs and books in their "store" if you are eager for more. If you were to do any meaningful analysis, you'd have to spend hours just navigating their interface. Here's a radical suggestion: why not just put the data online and do away with the flashy images, the registration, the 'store', and the labyrinth of drop-down boxes? You know, like the rest of the world does? The site has been developed by LogicSoft, just so you know where the blame lies.

I was showing this to Neha, and we were discussing how bad the websites themselves were. Neha had a wonderful story which was related to the subject. Many years ago, while she was a Statistics student, she figured that it would be interesting to play with real-world data. She was in Delhi, and the relevant government offices were nearby. So she and a friend went over to the office to ask for data. They were treated with such utter contempt that they gave up any hopes of ever working with government data. Further, their story was a cautionary tale to other students in their university, who quickly steered away from any area even remotely connected with the Indian government data. Some of them were considering jobs that would have involved Indian government data, which they quickly abandoned for better employment.

Maybe there is something connecting the quality of the website and the organization. The census bureau website does turn out to be a good indicator of the attitude of people working at the Indian census bureau.