I want to be able to discuss our website design knowledgeably
February 26, 2007 10:21 PM   Subscribe

I work for the government of a small developing country, and we are looking at making all of our legislation freely available on the internet. We hope to be able to obtain the services of a virtual volunteer to do the web design and setup for us for free, but I need help in getting clear in my own mind exactly what it is we will be asking our volunteer to do for us.

I have an idea of what I want - the laws indexed alphabetically, then available section by section in html, with the option of downloading each Act in its entirety as a pdf; simple, clean, accessible design, with low bandwidth requirements. The content will be relatively static, but we will need to be able to update the site ourselves to include new laws as they are passed. We will also want to be able to make CDs of the entire site available for purchase by those who don't have internet access.

There are very few/no web designers in our part of the world, and I am not really up with the terminology. I want to be able to give clear instructions and discuss our needs relatively knowledgeably.

What should I know? On what technology should the site be based? Do we need a content management system? What sort of experience should I be looking for in our volunteer?

Bonus points if you can point me to examples of websites that meet my criteria (I already know about AustLII and its siblings).
posted by Tawita to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm. For examples of how this has been approached: Nevada Revised Statutes. Utah Code and Constitution. Texas statutes. Florida. Indiana Code. Indiana actually looks closest to your description, although it's not perfect.

These are states that I remember as being relatively accessible - I could go back and find really horrible examples as well, for what not to do. I used to have to research statutes and regulations in all states for my job, so I went round with lots of these. I know I'm forgetting a very good one, too.
posted by dilettante at 10:42 PM on February 26, 2007

Estonia tries to make all official information available on the web. It's probably in Estonian, though. English-languange portal here.
posted by Harald74 at 11:00 PM on February 26, 2007

The UK's legislation site does the sort of thing you are looking to set up - arranged by year, then alphabetically, with options to access in HTML or PDF. And it's a clean design. See here.
posted by greycap at 11:11 PM on February 26, 2007

New Zealands answer. Primarily done in alphabetical order.
posted by chrisbucks at 11:20 PM on February 26, 2007

"What should I know?"
Focus on the areas you're most familiar with, e.g. the needs of the site and CMS users. It's good to build up some general technical knowledge, but you can't be expected to know it all. Be the expert about your government's side of the project.

"On what technology should the site be based?"
Be very wary of anyone who recommends software before they've asked you lots of probing questions about your requirements and the nature and structure of the content. There's no such thing as a cure-all CMS platform, despite what some may claim.

"Do we need a content management system?"
Yes, and try to automate all repetitive tasks, such as creating the CD files, as soon as possible.
Try to make sure the data is stored sensibly and not locked into an awkward proprietary system. Web sites can be redesigned and rebuilt every now and then, code comes and goes, but good data can last indefinitely.

"What sort of experience should I be looking for in our volunteer?"
Before you think about building it, get someone to help you to establish the requirements and plan the project. That'll be someone with broad technical knowledge and experience of designing and planning similar systems. Once you have a clear plan you can look for the right people/software to implement it.

As well as using volunteering sites, don't be afraid to approach experienced individuals/companies who clearly know what they're doing. I suspect quite a lot of people would like to have such a project in their portfolio (unless the country has a bad human rights record or something equally offputting), especially if they have a connection with the region or with law, and at worst they'll politely decline.
posted by malevolent at 8:22 AM on February 27, 2007

The second paragraph of your question is a pretty good start for specs. If you have a good volunteer, you should be able to go from there.

Your requirements for simple structure and self-updateability suggest that a CMS system of some sort will be a good fit. Your requirement that it be readable from a CD ROM however, complicates this a bit. It's not easy to put a CMS system on a CD ROM that will run on any platform (Windows, Macs, and Linux.) It is easy to put a static website on a CD ROM that will. So to make the CD ROM production painless, you'll either need to use some software that will "download" your whole site and make a local copy with working links, or you you create the site from the start that is not generated by a CMS system, but rather is a static collection of html, images, and optionally, css documents. This option would suggest a system where your volunteer would set up design templates for you to use, and then teach you to use web publishing software like Adobe Dreamweaver or MS Frontpage to create your site.

I happen to be a professional CD ROM developer (we are a dying breed but we're still out here!) If you have questions about that part of it, or would like to talk about building a separate CD ROM interface for distributing your docs, you can email me at nonmyopicdave at yepmail dot net.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 11:05 AM on February 27, 2007

New Zealands answer. Primarily done in alphabetical order.

The New Zealand project had huge, huge problems and has run years behind schedule. They could therefore be good people to contact, because they'd be able to tell you what NOT to do. Try contacting someone at the Parliamentary Counsel's Office. (Note that the page chrisbucks linked to is an unofficial, interim version - though it works OK for most people's purposes).

I'm not sure where you are located, though the fact that you mentioned AustLII implies that it might be the Pacific. Have you considered approaching Australia or New Zealand for development assistance?
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:39 PM on February 27, 2007

Victoria's one works really well for me, as a user:

posted by wilful at 6:11 PM on February 27, 2007

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