Author: Denise Eisner

Denise Eisner is a senior-level web strategist and communications specialist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a member of the Government Service Excellence practice, Denise’s experience and specializations include web strategy development, information architecture, web analytics (WebTrends and Google Analytics) and web project management. She has led large-scale content audits, developed performance measurement frameworks, and coordinated site updates to meet Treasury Board policies standards and guidelines. Engaged in the evolving spheres of information technology, corporate communications and media for almost two decades, Denise has transformed business objectives into web strategies and information architectures for corporate and government clients in the U.S. and Canada.

Clean out the ROT in your Web Closet

There’s something eerily satisfying about cleaning out a closet, or at least it is to chaosphobes likes myself who can’t function in a messy space. With less stuff to search through and now organized in neat categories, that closet is a place where I know I’ll find what I need and whether there’s a gap that has to be filled.

There’s a strong parallel to looking for content on a large Web site. Too much badly organized and irrelevant content makes finding the good stuff harder and more frustrating. But cleaning out the ROT (Redundant, Outdated or Trivial content), is not exactly a priority for most government departments. Putting up content, particularly reports and news releases, seems to dominate the priorities for most Web teams. And so the ROT builds up, until someone says a major overhaul is needed.

A major overhaul is like moving to a new house: expensive, stressful and time-consuming. A regular content audit however, is like cleaning out a closet every so often: cheaper, manageable and faster. For a site or subsite of less than 5,000 pages, it can be done in approximately two months, barring any other major drains on the team’s time. The steps are straight forward:

  • Designate a project manager to oversee the content audit and track progress.
  • Capture all the existing content information in a spreadsheet.
  • Determine what you want to know about your content: accuracy, findability in search engines, usefulness to audiences, etc. and share that methodology with the project team.
  • Engage content owners to identify their content and determine its accuracy, and web specialists to rate the content’s findability and usefulness.
  • Collate the findings to see what content can be archived, refurbished or kept as is.
  • Report recommendations to senior management for action.

If nothing has been done to the website in three years, a good content audit should identify at least 50% ROT. One of our clients just completed an audit with 67% ROT. They now can focus on improving the remaining content, and thus make their site more useful to the people that visit it.

With departments starting the planning process for the next fiscal year, now is the time to determine which older sections of the Web site (or the entire site) need a review, identify available project resources and build timelines for a content audit.

“Do Not Track List” Implications for Web Analytics

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s recently released report about consumer privacy at first glance makes web analysts like me shudder. It says, not surprisingly, that some companies appear to treat consumer information “in an irresponsible or even reckless manner” and “do not adequately address consumer privacy interests”. The gist is that unless government steps in to corral the unfettered encroachment on individual privacy, consumers may become the hapless victims of “physical security, economic injury, and unwanted intrusions into their daily lives.” Talk of a creating a “do not track” list to protect consumers is underway both in the U.S. and now in Canada.

Assessing the performance of a website without some quantitative gauge of what people are doing (or not doing) makes it nearly impossible to know if the web channel is meeting the needs of users and the goals of the organization. I worried that the FTC’s proposed framework for protecting consumers would greatly impact any analyst’s ability to use quantitative tools to measure web performance.

But the FTC does put some common sense into their framework by allowing data collection for what they term “commonly accepted practices.” These include the obvious, such as collecting the address for shipment of a purchased product, fraud prevention, first-party marketing (the site you’re visiting offers you free shipping) and happily, collection about visits and click-throughs to improve customer service.

Mind you, quantitative or clickstream tools are only part of the analyst’s arsenal. Real insight comes with a myriad of inputs about user behaviours, be they on-page surveys (“did you find what you were looking for today?”), testing of different calls to action, or other methods that marry the what with the why with respect to how users interact with a Web site.

I agree with the FTC’s assertion that organizations should be more transparent about their data practices, which at a minimum includes publishing plain language policies explaining how individual data is used. The same policy considerations are needed in Canada, allowing both for privacy of Canadians’ personal information as well as recognition that Web performance data helps government, non-profits and for-profit organizations reach their audiences more effectively and efficiently.

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant within the Government Service Excellence practice.

Open Data in D.C.: From Potholes to Apps for Democracy

David Strigel is the Program Manager of the Citywide Data Warehouse at the District of Columbia Government. Citywide Data Warehouse is the first initiative in the US that makes virtually all current district government operational data available to the public in its raw form rather than in static, edited reports. David shared the challenges and successes with the project with Systemscope’s Denise Eisner following his presentation at GTEC.

David, at GTEC you described the effort involved in getting government data sets online. What was the biggest lesson from the early part of the project and what might you have done differently?

Start small and start now. Washington DC did not wait to plan out a 10-year program. We started with one dataset in one format and put it online as is. We started with a single dataset in a single format: it was service request data, including things like pot holes and trash pickup.

Looking back, what might you have done differently?

The District, as one of the first to open their data in such a large volume, had to create custom code to build their data catalogue and data connections. With open data initiatives becoming more of a priority in many jurisdictions, many companies have appeared on the market offering solutions that can help a government launch a program similar to the Citywide Data Warehouse.

We now state in many RFPs that projects must share the data so the vendor and project budget take this effort into account at the planning stages. Adding this language to RFPs from the start would have helped us move along faster.

Can you describe some of the interesting ways in which people are using the city’s data?

A resident has created an intricate website that uses the District’s data feeds to provide economic development information, including permit status and crime statistics. There’s also crime reports as I mentioned and another called everyblock.

The District’s Apps for Democracy contest challenged residents to utilize information available from DC’s Data Feeds to develop consumer-based applications. Local developers produced 47 applications that were conceived, developed, and delivered in 30 days. Winning applications include a DC biking guide, government purchases over $2,500, parking meter locations, community garden sites, and more.

Our clients here in Ottawa always face change management issues with major projects. What are the change management issues you encountered for the warehouse project and how did you mitigate them?

The most prominent organizational obstacle is that some individuals within government do not always welcome the idea of creating opportunities for the public to criticize government operations. There are select employees that worry that the public will misinterpret raw data or that the data owner will be unable to affect how the data is used after it resides in the centralized data warehouse. These employees often cite budget cuts, limited production capacity, insufficient technology resources, or other top priority projects as reasons not to participate in data democratization.

How did we convince people? It depends on the objection:

  • We have no money: If our program has the time, we can do the database work for the agency and create a read-only table in the customer’s database for CityDW’s use.
  • This will create opportunities for the public to criticize government operations: we are in a way opening ourselves to criticism but in some cases the public can help the government QA the data, find issues and help us fix those issues.
  • Limited production capacity: CityDW can connect and get updates in the middle of the night.
  • We don’t have a way to get you the data: CityDW has become very flexible as to how agencies can send and update data. We prefer an Oracle to Oracle connection but as with any government many different technologies are used across the city. In many cases agencies update a Excel report and send a CSV file on a scheduled basis; CityDW automatically ‘watches’ for the emails and updates the data in the data warehouse.

What are the financial realities for executing an open data strategy in government? How do you make a business case for embarking on open data initiatives in these economic times?

You don’t need a massive budget to get started. You can start an open data program with a part-time: project manager, developer and DBA and grow from there once you have users requesting more data. Governments and resident will both benefit with having a centralized location for the data… there will be second set of eyes on the data. Issues may be found in the data that will enable the government to save money or identify revenue sources.

What was the desired outcome for your open data strategy and program, and how have you been able to measure its success?

We wanted the residents to be able to take our data and visualize it or create applications that would benefit other residents and create new ways of looking at the data that we never considered. We wanted another set of eyes on our data, looking for issues that need to be corrected.

All our data is available via other applications, dashboards, tools, and reports. So in addition to tracking downloads we have to track usage and log-ins of the other applications and dashboards… for downloads in fiscal year 2010 we had almost 2 million downloads. We can also measure our success by the number of incoming requests for more data, dashboards, and reporting environments.

Do you have any suggestions as to how an open data initiative at the municipal level might be leveraged across all levels of government (city, state/provincial, federal)?

Washington DC is a unique situation in that we are a government that has to function as a state, city and county. Building a program that contains the central location for enterprise wide data creates many beneficiaries and not just the residents and press. Once of the most common uses of data are Districts employees. They may not know who in the government controls access to a particular dataset but they do know that the data is published at There are no forms to fill out; employees just like the residents can download agency data so they can do their job faster and more efficiently.

A centralized data warehouse allows you to expand beyond open government and data sharing. Once you have the data, reporting environments can be created and used inside the government. Business intelligence applications and dashboard can be built to help executives view the overall ‘health’ of their agency without having to drill down in to all of the data line by line.

Denise Eisner is a Senior Consultant in the Government Service Excellence practice.

A hallowed Eaves takes the scary out of open data at GTEC

A public policy entrepreneur, open government activist, negotiation expert and loquacious blogger, David Eaves champions the cause of open data in government. Systemscope’s Denise Eisner spoke to David after his well-received appearance at the GTEC conference in Ottawa.

David, one of the open data issues that emerged during the GTEC conference was the public sector concern regarding risk. Clearly the issue hit home as you blogged about it immediately! How would you advise federal departments trying to balance openness/transparency and risk management?

The only acceptable risk is if you think people are going to do something illegal. The policy infrastructure for dealing with people who do bad things already exists. This is not to say you shouldn’t have a communications strategy about your data. People may find missing or incorrect data, but that’s OK, you can fix that.

At GTEC, you issued an open challenge to the public sector audience to open their data. Why do you think open data in government has yet to take root?

The technology for sharing is relatively new and people in government are not used to sharing. But there’s a huge appetite among a cohort of public servants and they’re trying to get their institutions interested in sharing.

So what “low hanging fruit” should government departments be thinking about when deciding which data sets to make available first?

I would find all the data sets we already share with the public and consolidate them to a single portal. It is going to cost money and it will require people, something like a swat team to make data sets ready. Sometimes you have data trapped in proprietary structures and you need to get that into a format that’s usable for the world. Edit your procurement so that any new system you buy has an open data component to it. You have to reshape the vendor market.

The return on investment for open data is not just transparency: it’s an efficiency ROI.

You started an open data Web site, ostensibly to fill a void for accessible government open data. What have you learned from that process?

The thing that surprised me the most was how far some government departments have come in sharing in their data, particularly Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada. As of today there are about 200 sets available.

Why not wait for government to finish their data portal project?

What makes the digital era so exciting is that we don’t have to wait for government to act: we can do it on our own. The site creates a safe place where we can model the behaviour we want government to display and then have them copy us. That would be the goal.

Did anything surprise you during your recent visit at GTEC?

In Canada, we’re late to the game. What makes the conversation around open data different in DC or Vancouver, is that in those places the conversation is around how we’ve come this far, and how do we keep going. In Ottawa it’s still a question of how we get past that first hump. I don’t know exactly what’s causing this, other than big projects across ministries are always incredibly difficult. A notable difference between the UK and Canada is political leadership. Open data and transparency is a real priority in England. On day one of the new conservative administration, the UK’s prime minister announced he would release more data than the previous administration.

You sound hopeful.

It’s not a huge onerous task. I think that other countries have been able to do it. They have been able to move forward. In most cases government has the data and it is extractable. There may a cost to making it ready. But it’s not a hard issue. What’s hard is shifting the culture.

There are a lot of great people doing this work and we need to support them. One group that I’ve been working with and is pushing forward is Parliament. They’re developing an XML feed to the Hansard with a launch planned for January. This is an important and huge step forward.

I’m hopeful that the incentives are in place to do open data here in Canada. There are potentially significant savings for government through efficiencies, better vendor agreements and more.

Denise Eisner is a Senior Consultant in the Government Service Excellence practice.

Systemscope cyclists ride to support juvenile diabetes research

This year, Systemscope has played a stronger role in giving back to the community, sponsoring:

  • The Government of Canada’s Charitable campaign
  • Candlelighters annual golf tournament
  • Chelsea School Nursery School auction
  • The Blackburn Stingers Novice A Team hockey team

In addition, we supported two employees, Denise Eisner and Bryn Ferris, in taking paid volunteer days to participate, respectively, in a ride to support programs for kids with cancer and build a playground in an underprivileged neighbourhood in Ottawa.

Our latest instalment in giving back came last Friday, October 15, when Denise Eisner organized a high-calibre team of riders to raise funds and participate in the annual Junior Diabetes Ride to Cure Diabetes at Ottawa City Hall. The event seemed simple enough – 5 riders each taking 8 minute turns on a stationary bike, multiplied by 113 teams in total.

Out of our deep resource pool of 15 employees, Denise chose carefully and deliberately before naming her “dream team” in August. The cycling pedigree was impressive:

  • Bryn Ferris, member of every recreational sporting league possible in Ottawa, had considered riding across Canada before he joined Systemscope and thought nothing of 150-175 km rides
  • Phil Culhane, father of a figure skating champion and long-time cyclist himself
  • Denise Eisner, participant in the Rideau Lakes tour and weekend recreationalist of 100-150 km per outing
  • And me, Denis Barbeau, short-term interceptor type of guy (20-40 km) who prefers the hills of Wakefield to the flats of Manotick

My goal was threefold:

  • Raise lots of money for a good cause (we did – over $ 600 and climbing)
  • Look good (we were hot, adorned in spandex and Systemscope branding) (see photo)
  • Beat Bryn, a guy little more than half my age and weight (I did, thank you)

After our spandex-clad troupe took the warm route through the Rideau Centre to City Hall, we arrived at the registration desk. We saw hordes of participants from RBC and TD, and other teams, and listened to the sounds of Bob FM. We were psyched, amped and ready to go. Like a good field general, Denise assigned us our positions and “coincidentally” put me head-to-head with her personal trainer from another team who “coincidentally” happened to be riding in the same race and timeslot and who’s bike was “coincidentally” located next to mine.

With music blaring, pompoms pumping and team mates cheering, Bryn led off at 12:00 PM sharp, followed by me, Phil, Denise and Rob. We pushed hard and did well, accumulating well over 30 km distance in under an hour. During brief intermissions, my colleagues remarked upon a number of bank representatives smoking outside our tent. “Well, at least we’re not riding to support lung cancer research” one them caustically observed.

Feeling proud of our individual and collective accomplishments, we headed back for a well-deserved celebration lunch of drinks, burgers and club sandwiches – accompanied by salads of course.

Great job team!

Denis Barbeau is Partner at Systemscope. He finished first at this year’s JDRF event.

Performance Management at the CRTC

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) website supports the organization’s regulatory activities by providing timely access to public proceedings documents and general interest content particularly suited to consumers of broadcasting and telecommunications services. Its most frequent visitors are representatives of the two industries it regulates, who need the site content for research purposes and to participate in regulatory proceedings.

In the spring of 2009, Systemscope delivered a Performance Measurement Framework and an accompanying research program to support monitoring and reporting on the CRTC site’s performance. The Framework outlined performance indicators with respect to user experience, content and web operations.

Using the Framework as a guide, the Commission worked with a Systemscope analyst to benchmark its existing site performance to understand traffic patterns to the site among new and returning visitors, and then use analytics to improve the user experience.

Case Study – CRTC Performance Management

Yanks Look to Gov Being the Platform for Open Data

by Denise Eisner

Full disclosure: I am a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, so any hint of favourtism toward the U.S. approach to open data should be taken with a Memphis-rubbed rib in one hand and a Sam Adams lager in the other.

Open Data is the mantra within government, both here and abroad. In the U.S., government employees, non-profit organizations, developers and community activists are working together on a myriad of data mashups that take rich public data and put it into useful interfaces and onto the platforms people are using. Students with no budgets but seemingly endless spare time are publishing extremely practical applications, while tech start-ups are challenging the notion that data sitting in a dusty archive doesn’t have tremendous value: in fact it can have market value that then translates into new job creation, or what we now call “stimulus.”

The open data fervour reached fever pitch last week at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington D.C., where several hundred of the aforementioned groups both from the U.S. and abroad came together to talk about open data, citizen engagement and a slew of related topics. It kicked off with the clarion call by O’Reilly Media’s CEO Tim O’Reilly that “government should think of itself as a platform, to let others build on to deliver additional services to the public.”

With government as “the caretaker for vast stores of information in our national libraries, archives, research laboratories and museums” points out Carl Malamud, founder of Public.Service.Org, those in and outside that conference room should “finish the open gov revolution.” They need open data standards, and need to enforce them. Giving the government’s data to small groups, he says, can turn many small facts into one big truth.

The trouble is that the open data revolution to date has produced a lot of sexy looking government websites, but as Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation notes, not a lot of good data. Data errors and omissions have hobbled many of the U.S. government’s efforts to date. Bloated IT projects with no accountability have undermined efforts to give value to citizens, something that the U.S. government’s CIO is addressing with a deadly serious IT scorecard process that actually halted 30 projects that were in the works and cancelled 12 outright.

What’s the answer? Mr. O’Reilly has it right that government should be the platform, and I would add that the line stops there. Governments should not decide how citizens want their data, but give it freely in formats that can be used across devices and services. ESRI’s president, Jack Dangermond, encouraged government to publish maps as a shared service, one where the data sets are free for anyone to overlay with other data and gain new insights. Developer/blogger Kathy Sierra spoke passionately about creating the killer user, not the killer app. And June Cohen of the powerfully inspiring TED Conferences reached out to the audience to “harness the power and wisdom of crowds.”

David Eaves, the sole Canadian presenter at the Gov 2.0 Summit, stole the show with a fast-paced monologue describing open data successes, all built using available government data. We’ll see David soon at the GTEC conference here in Ottawa as our guest.

As the FCC’s Chairman Julius Genachowski stated, “it’s the public’s data, not ours.”

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant within the Government Service Excellence practice. Follow Denise on Twitter.