What is going on with your websites
We at The Satori Lab are compiling reports into the use of local government websites in the UK. We’re asking councils for some basic data about their visits and their users. Then we’re comparing this to other councils (and also to data from 2015).
I say “we” but really it’s my colleague Luke Piper who is doing the work.
We’ve published reports for Wales and South West England and reports for other parts of England are in the works. The reports have been quite well received by their target audience: local authority web or digital managers.
They are free to download and the data is released under an open licence (or as least as open a licence as we are able to apply).
The whole process is pretty unsatisfactory though.
Possibly the worst way to share data
The only way to get this data from most local authorities is to ask for it, in writing. That request is then dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act.
This is unsatisfactory for the council staff who probably feel they have better things to be doing than running queries just for us. It’s unsatisfactory for us (or really for Luke) because dealing with hundreds of emails from different people with different ways of presenting the information is time-consuming with a high risk of error.
Why we do this
Now, you may point out that we’re a business and we wouldn’t be doing this unless we were making money. So a little inconvenience is a small price to pay.
If only that were true.
We do hope that these reports will raise our profile in the sector and remind web managers that if they need help with website data (especially Google Analytics) then we are available.
But mostly we think this sort of data is useful to web managers. And no-one seemed to be going to publish it. So we did.
It would be much, much more satisfactory all round if we could automate this process in future.
If that happened we could dedicate more of our time to the analysis, which is where the value is added, and spare every web team in the country the annoyance of meeting the FOIA deadlines when they are trying to ship a new service.
It is trivially easy for local authorities to run regular reports on their Google Analytics set up (and the vast majority of councils do use Google Analytics) and publish some key metrics. My colleague Luke is often reminding me that not ALL councils use Google Analytics. It is typically possible to run regular reports on other platforms though the specifics vary between platforms
Several councils already do do this (Oxford City Council for example) which is to be welcomed but (there’s always a but). It would be more satisfactory if councils chose to publish a consistent set of metrics. It would be even better if they published them in the same place (for example data.gov.uk).
Not all analytics tools collect the same data. So we should identify what data is really useful. Our research provides a basis for this so we might suggest a basic schema in a future post.
Even more attractive would be the idea of creating a central database of council website usage data which everyone could access. This is not, in fact, technically hard Open Web Analytics is simple to apply and has good reporting tools. A pooled service based on OWA could run alongside existing analytics services, so minimal interference with individual councils’ current practice. We could keep the data in the UK and have access to the full dataset for every council. This would really be terribly useful and not just to local authorities.
It would require a (smallish) ongoing revenue stream to fund a server. This is where it falls down. There’s no obvious source of ongoing funding for such a project. It’s a real pity.
I think the main attraction of Google Analytics for many councils is simply that it is free. They certainly aren’t exploiting its reporting potential. It’s just a free way to store website data that they might, one day, need.
I previously experimented with the idea of councils sharing access to their Google Analytics reporting engines. Since the vast majority of councils use Google Analytics this seemed attractive (though we’d need something else for the others of course). It’s technically straightforward but administratively complicated. I see it as a non-starter.
So it looks like we’re stuck with the FOI approach for the foreseeable future. Which suits no-one
I still have hope
It does seem to me that this is something that might be feasible to achieve with the devolved administrations. Maybe the WLGA would like to support an open analytics project for Welsh local authorities?
Thanks for reading.
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I’m Ben from The Satori Lab. We work to support public servants so they have the right tools, skills and culture to design excellent public services.
You may also know me from Twitter where I am @likeaword.