Presenting Online Data to Wide-Ranging User Communities

Presenting data online that will serve a wide range of users can be challenging. It requires an understanding of the target users’ needs, interests, and familiarity with the use of data handling tools. This challenge can be especially daunting for government websites that present data for use by the general public. The audience for such data can range in extremes—from scientists to school children. Clearly, a single data tool would not adequately meet the needs of such a wide range of users.

Viktors Ignatenko/Hemera/Thinkstock

When creating data-centric sites, web designers must be able to scale up and scale down the technical sophistication of their data tools to meet the needs of the target users. One excellent illustration of such scaling can be found in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS).

Describing Data Communities

As described in the ACS information guide, “The ACS is a nationwide survey that collects and produces information on demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics about our nation’s population every year. This information provides an important tool for communities to use to see how they are changing.” The data in the survey is targeted to serve federal agencies, state and local agencies, nongovernmental organizations, emergency planners, American Indians and Alaska Natives, businesses, educators, journalists, and the public.

The site allows users to self-select their group affinity and then presents suggestions about the data that will suit their needs and how to access it. In its “Guidance for Data Users” section, the ACS presents links to the subjects covered by the survey, suggestions of what tools to use, digital handbooks, and online training presentations. All of these options are further broken down into sections targeting the various potential user groups.

Under “Which Data Tool Should I Use?,” the site presents multiple illustrated case studies that help users recognize the group they belong to.

Screen cap of the Congressional staffer profile.
Screen cap of the Business Owner profile.
Screen cap of the Developer profile.

Training presentations are similarly broken down and geared toward different users, as is illustrated by titles such as: “Using Census Bureau Data and Enigma’s Smoke Signals to Save Lives,” “Using the Census API with the American Community Survey Webinar,” and “How to Use ACS Geodatabase Files and ArcMap.” At a glance, emergency workers would be drawn to the first training, programmers to the second, and those with an interest in geography to the third.

Providing Diversified Training

When it comes to presenting data online to the general public, one-size clearly will not fit all. Government web designers must go the extra mile to develop ways to make sure that data is presented in ways that are useful, understandable, and geared toward the abilities of potential users.

Broad-based Online Data: One Size Does Not Fit All

If information is too simplistic, advanced users will find accessing data too time-consuming, while if it is too dense, ordinary users will be overwhelmed. Both extremes will result in—otherwise useful—costly datasets remaining underutilized. However, sufficient preplanning to identify potential users, in-depth research into understanding the needs of potential users, and adequate tailoring of data tools and training materials to serve the users and their needs, will result in positive user experiences and favorable reception of the online data-centered site.

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