Author: Jess Henderson (Page 2 of 2)

Good news on IE6: government usage plummets in 2012

Almost a year ago, we published some interesting browser statistics based on the logs from one of our Central Government Citizen Space servers. We ran the logs through a piece of open source analysis software called Visitors, and this gave us an anonymous breakdown of all visits to Citizen Space, showing the browsers and versions that were used. We looked at the statistics for all pages, and compared them with the stats for pages only accessible to admin users. The results were insightful but rather scary: Internet Explorer 6 accounted for more than 1 in 3 visits by our Central Government admin users.

For those who don’t know, Internet Explorer version 6 (lovingly known as IE6) is a web browser that Microsoft released over a decade ago. Because it renders web pages differently (in some cases dramatically differently) from more modern browsers, web developers spend a great deal of time creating workarounds so that IE6 users can still access our websites. Of course, this increases the cost of product development without necessarily offering any benefit to the majority of web users who don’t use IE6. Coupled with the fact that IE6 now only receives limited support from Microsoft, almost everyone is in agreement that this ancient and decrepit browser must be phased out.

This morning, we had a comment on last year’s post from a reader who was interested in how Citizen Space’s browser stats had changed. Thank you Perry – you reminded me that I’d been meaning to re-do this analysis soon. So here are the graphs comparing the numbers 11 months ago with where we are today:

Central Government Citizen Space – all users (admin and public)

All users by browser, May 2011

Breakdown of visits by browser: IE8: 23.0%, Firefox: 15.6%, IE9: 14.9%, IE7: 14.9%, Chrome: 13.2%, Safari: 10.8%, IE6: 5.9%

All users by browser, April 2012

These statistics roughly follow the browser trends of the general internet population*, with IE8 and 9 increasing in popularity while the older IE versions decrease as expected. Pleasingly, IE6 usage has roughly halved since last May.

Firefox, Chrome and Safari have gained more of a stronghold in the past year, although interestingly, Internet Explorer as a whole has retained a far larger share of Citizen Space users than worldwide browser usage statistics* would predict.

Central Government Citizen Space instances – admin pages only

Admin users by browser, May 2011

Breakdown of visits by browser: IE8: 60.3%, IE7: 29.3%, Chrome: 3.8%, IE6: 2.4%, Firefox: 1.8%, IE9: 1.3%, Safari: 1.1%

Admin users by browser, April 2012


When looking at the statistics for our admin users, the most exciting thing is that usage of IE6 has crashed by 90% – from 35% down to 2.4% of visits. This is a great relief to us, and shows the huge effort that has taken place in government IT departments to upgrade users away from this insecure, ill-supported browser.

It’s worth noting that overall, usage of Internet Explorer among our Central Government users is more than 90%, compared to 34% worldwide*.

What next?

The interesting question is what levels of support to provide for different browser capabilities. We currently provide Level 2 support for IE6, which means that all content must be readable and navigable, but differences in styling and layout may exist. This works OK for our products at the moment, but as web users come to expect a richer and more fluid experience, the likes of IE6 are going to lag further and further behind. How small does the percentage of IE6 users need to be before we can stop supporting it at all?

To other web developers: when do you stop supporting ancient browsers and those with limited functionality? How much can you rely on the presence of client-side technologies like Javascript, cookies, HTML5, CSS3..?

To government IT managers (thank you for phasing out IE6 btw!) what level of support do you expect for older browsers? Do security constraints dictate that you disable features like Javascript or cookies?

As always, I’d love to hear your views.


*Worldwide browser statistics from statcounter.com.

“A better sense of place” – using geo-tools in consultations for searching and sharing (developer playtime)

I’ve recently spent some time playing with the idea of associating Citizen Space consultations with a geographic location.

We already do this to some extent. Consultations can be associated with one or more local wards or areas, so that visitors to Citizen Space can enter their postcode and see a list of consultations related to the area they live in. This is great for helping people find out what’s going on near them, but I’ve been itching to take this geographic information further. In particular:

1) It would be nice to show this information visually, for example on a map. This is particularly useful if a policy relates to a specific object (eg a building, road junction or monument), or an area that doesn’t correspond to pre-defined ward boundaries (eg a bus route, catchment area or park)

2) We love Open Data. If we’re storing data about a consultation, it’s always nice to make it available in a standard format so that other websites and applications can make use of it. We already do this using RDFa for many of our consultation details (see Tom’s blog post for a good run-down of RDFa and the Semantic Web), but currently we’re not sharing any geographic information with the rest of the world.

So how could this work? A sneak peak of Citizen Space pre-release features:

I’ve added some extra fields so that you can enter longitude and latitude coordinates when setting up a consultation. Alternatively, if you want to specify a shape (such as the footprint of a building), a line (such as a bus route), or an outline (such as the boundaries of a catchment area), you can upload a KML file to your consultation. If you have a GIS team or supplier, they should be able to provide this data in the right format.

Screenshot showing fields for adding longitude, latitude and uploading a KML file

When visitors view the consultation record, they’ll see an interactive map marked with the information you specified:

Map showing a single point

Map showing a single point

Map showing an outline

Map showing the outline of an area


While it’s instructive to show a map of the consultation area to Citizen Space visitors, this location data becomes even more interesting if we let third-party users and developers get their hands on it. In my prototype code, I’ve included three ways of sharing the data:

Method 1: KML
If you look at those screenshots you’ll see that there’s a link to a KML feed underneath the map. If you uploaded your own KML file, it will link straight to that file. If you entered coordinates, it will generate a new KML file just containing the point you specified.

KML is a very simple way to share mapping data with other online applications. It can be done using sites such Google Maps and Microsoft Virtual Earth without any programming knowledge. Lets say you’re consulting about a proposed cycle path, and have uploaded a KML file plotting the complete route of the path. A local parents’ group might use the KML data to overlay your route over their existing map of schools, parks and youth centres, to show how child safety could be improved by the construction of the path.

Method 2: GeoRSS
Citizen Space currently provides RSS feeds that let users subscribe to all the latest consultations, or consultations that meet certain search criteria. These feeds are also used by third-party sites to embed up-to-date consultation information, or to aggregate consultations from multiple sources into a single list.

If we have geographic coordinates associated with a consultation, it’s very easy to publish this information as part of the RSS feed, using the emerging GeoRSS standard. Apps that understand and are interested in the location data can use it in much the same way as the KML data above. Apps and users who are not interested in location data won’t see any difference to their feeds.

Method 3: RDFa
We’ve already mentioned how useful RDFa is for sharing consultation information between different websites and applications. Well, it turns out the RDFa specification includes the ability to link your document to a place, using the “based_near” tag. If you’ve entered latitude and longitude information when setting up your consultation, this extra bit of RDFa will be published along with the rest of the consultation record. Sadly I haven’t found many examples of applications that currently use the based_near feature of RDFa, but here are a couple of ideas I’ve been thinking about:

  • A visual version of the Citizen Space aggregator, that can display consultations from many different sources on the same map.
  • A mobile app that alerts you when you’re near an object or place that’s being consulted on.

This new code isn’t in Citizen Space at the time of publishing this post, but will likely be included in a future release.

If anyone else has ideas for making use of location-based consultation data, please drop me a line. The more good ideas we get, the more likely it is that this feature will make it into a future Citizen Space release.

I’d also be keen to hear of formats we could use to share the data other than KML, GeoRSS or RDFa. Has anyone used GeoJSON for example?

Opening up the Citizen Space consultation Aggregator

Earlier this year we launched our consultation Aggregator, and put a demonstration site online. This combines all our clients’ consultations running on Delib’s Citizen Space software into a single, searchable hub. We were very pleased with this demo, and its purpose was twofold:

  1. To showcase the capabilities of the Aggregator.
  2. To display a complete list of our Citizen Space clients in one place.

The astute reader will probably notice that our Aggregator demo, as currently deployed, is of much more benefit to Delib than it is to the wider community! As one of the developers behind the Aggregator, this makes me a bit sad, as I know that it can do a lot more than this, both technically and socially.

Technically…
The Aggregator is not limited to aggregating Citizen Space consultations. It will just as happily include consultations published by third-party consultation systems. The only requirement is that they publish their list of consultations as an RSS feed, and that each consultation uses RDFa to specify its start and end dates. Since RDFa markup (including start and end dates) has been a requirement of UK central government consultations since January 2010, there is no reason why any consultations should be published without it these days.

Socially…
A list of consultations that all happen to run on Citizen Space is, in the grand scheme of things, rather an arbitrary division! Helpful for Delib sales maybe, but I’m not a sales person and I’d like to do something bigger!

As far as the public is concerned, it would make a lot more sense to have a searchable database of ALL consultation activity in their country or local area, regardless of the software used to publish the consultations.

How can we fix it?
We would like to start building an aggregated database of all UK public consultations that support the RSS and RDFa web standards. In theory, this should be ALL consultations, but in practice we know that not all software supports these standards yet.

Its purpose would be threefold:

  1. To showcase the capabilities of the Aggregator (sorry but we’re quite proud of it!)
  2. To showcase the awesome power of web standards and linked data in helping different (even competing!) software systems talk to each other.
  3. To provide a useful, up-to date listing of public consultation activity in the UK.

If you would like to nominate a council or public sector organisation to join our gang, please get in touch and send us a link to the consultation RSS feed (this is the feed linking to the actual consultation records, not a news feed, blog feed or anything else), and we’ll start building our fledgling consultation cooperative!

Stakeholder database for a fiver: a step-by-step walkthrough

Earlier this month, Chris blogged about adding a Stakeholder Database to your consultation for $5, by making use of Campaign Monitor‘s opt-in email service.

I have to confess I was dubious. As a developer, my initial reaction to this kind of proposition is usually “it can’t possibly be as simple as you think it is”. So I tried it with one of our Citizen Space consultations, and it worked! Sorry for doubting you, Chris.

The whole thing took me about 45 minutes to set up and test, but that was only because I was taking screenshots at every step and making notes so I could document the process. You can probably do it in 15. So anyway, here’s the step-by-step guide:

I should note that the whole process of setting up the database and collecting stakeholder information is actually free. You only incur the $5 cost when you use Campaign Monitor to send an email to one of your mailing lists (totally worth it for the stats and reporting you get at the end). By the way, we’re not affiliated with Campaign Monitor, but we like them and use them to send our newsletters.

IE6 – the facts: 1 in 3 of our government clients still using it

We spend a lot of development time ensuring that our software is usable across all the commonly used web browsers. A disproportionate amount of this time is spent ensuring compliance with Microsoft’s archaic Internet Explorer 6 (IE6), which is 10 years old this year.

From time to time, we wonder whether we could provide better value for money by dropping support for IE6 and making more use of the facilities provided by newer browsers; a decision that has already been taken by the likes of YouTube, Facebook and Google.

Steph Gray recently blogged about whether Alphagov should have dropped IE6 support. Steph critiqued this decision, pointing out that a lot of civil servants still use IE6. We thought it might be useful to share the breakdown of browser usage by our civil service clients.

What do the numbers show?

Here is a chart of browser usage on the admin pages of our Citizen Space app, for the servers used by our Central Government clients:

IE7: 47.5%, IE6: 35.4%, Firefox: 7.1%, Chrome: 5.9%, IE8: 3.4%, Safari: 0.7%

Breakdown of admin pages by browser

And here is a graph of browser usage across all Citizen Space pages (admin and public-facing) on the same servers:

IE7: 21.2%, IE8: 20.3%, Firefox: 14.3%, Unknown: 13.2%, IE6: 11.0%, Chrome: 9.3%, Safari: 6.6%, IE9: 3.0%, Others: 1.2%

Breakdown of all pages by browser

Here you can see that IE6 is used by more than a third of our Citizen Space administrators, but only about a tenth of the total visitors. At the moment, there is clearly a need to continue supporting IE6 for our clients, but it does seem a shame when this investment could be put towards improving the user experience of the site’s end users.

I could write more words about these differences, but here’s another chart that tells the story pretty clearly:

Comparison of browser usage by admin users and all visitors

We’ll be keeping an eye on these figures to see how they change with time, and we’d also be interested to know how they compare with data from other sites aimed at government clients around the world. Does anyone else have any data they’d like to share?


The science bit:

  • Data was taken from May 2011’s Apache access logs from one of our Citizen Space servers. Data is anonymised.
  • We parsed the logs using the open-source Visitors software (which we modified to include the most recent versions of IE). The software can be downloaded from http://www.hping.org/visitors/doc.html.
  • Statistics are based on visits rather than pageviews, where a visit is all requests for a given useragent and IP address on one day.
  • We excluded any visits from our own IP address and from our server monitoring services.
  • We did not exclude crawlers and other bots, which probably account for the majority of the ‘unknown’ useragents in the second chart.

What is consultations.gov.uk?

I was Googling ‘Online Consultation’ today, and came across consultations.gov.uk referenced in a Wikipedia article. It’s down.

Anyone know what it is, or what it was? Seems like a waste of a good domain name to me.

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