How global bodies can keep their audiences better informed

International organisations recognised several years ago the mission-enhancing power of the web as a platform for communication with their various audiences. But how they have developed that opportunity ranges from the sloppy to the exemplary.

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A map on the United Nations children’s website shows the capital of Djibouti as Ngurtuwa, and the other main towns as Abuja and Lagos. The real capital is Djibouti and all three places are in Nigeria. Also according to the site, the capital of Papua New Guinea is Port Moseby (real answer: Port Moresby). I found these howlers in a few minutes; how many others are there in what should be a definitive source?
International organisations discovered how useful the web could be many years ago: as data-generating machines needing to disseminate to any number of audiences, the medium was a gift to them. By putting statistics, speeches, statements and so on online, they were saving a fortune (and many trees), and being more open at the same time. I looked at several of them for this column five years ago, and am amazed at how little they have changed since. In the case of the United Nations, this maturity has turned into sloppiness, which is dangerous. Others, notably The World Bank and the European Union, are beacons of best practice that should be examined by anyone with responsibility for information-rich sites.

Search sophistication essential


What should an international organisation do with its site? Provide all sorts of interest groups with relevant material, primarily. To do this they should have highly sophisticated search engines, and also make it easy for people to browse their way to engaging content.
All the sites I looked at appear to have good search engines, with options for simple and advanced search and instructions on how to use them. The EU has a particularly strong help section, with First Aid describing the basic search options, and Extended Help going into detail. It also has a specialist engine for its legislation, as the World Bank does for projects. The International Monetary Fund’s engine is the least fancy but its use of conventional Boolean operators – familiar to experienced data-seekers – makes it easy enough to use.
The real proof of a search engine is in the searching. I spotted a reference to World Rural Women’s Day on the UN site, and tried to find it by using the advanced search option. No results. The IMF also failed me when I wanted to find out about tin concentrate in Myanmar; this reference was in a downloadable pdf document, but it should still have been pinpointed. It is easy to let search mechanisms get sloppy because it takes effort to test them. But that, for a giant organisation, is no excuse.

Inaccuracies compromise browsability


When it comes to browsing, the difference between the sites is far more marked. The World Bank keeps its lead from five years ago with front page links for different interest groups, each of which are given their own area. So bond investors are taken to the Debt Securities section, with lists of issues, news releases and so on; parliamentarians have an area that includes a question and answer board (little used, unsurprisingly); while children have a mass of material to help with projects. Some of this, such as an AIDS quiz, is specially prepared, but much of it is pulled together from other sections. This ‘portal’ approach has two advantages. First it allows the same material to be used repeatedly, but in different contexts; and it keeps each section at a manageable size.
Which brings me back to the UN. The lack of accuracy in the kids’ CyberSchoolBus section (cyberschoolbus.un.org) is alarming because it is otherwise so strong. I particularly like InfoNation – select any UN member and find key indicators about it – though it has lost some of its sophistication in the past few years. You can’t find murder rates any more.
How did the inaccuracies creep in? For the same reason, I suspect, that navigation is all over the place. This is a site with no central control and no quality control. The home page has a mass of disorganised links leading to areas with no common look or feel – they range from the elegant to the primitive – and often cut off from the rest. Try escaping from the Office of the Spokesman section or CyberSchoolBus: you cannot even get to the home page. The UN is, of course, huge, but so are the World Bank and the EU, both of which have highly co-ordinated sites. The EU site is particularly impressive because it is available in 11 languages: tabs allow you to switch between Portuguese and Swedish, or any other language, on any page.

Gold and an unmined opportunity


For those prepared to dig, there is much gold on all these sites. Even the IMF, a contender for the dullest home page of the year award, has terrific material for students, including an adventure in the land of Yak that shows how terrible things would be without a friendly international lender. The World Bank – which fights it out with the EU for the slickness award – has a remarkable statistical resource (devdata.worldbank.org/data-query). Drill down by country and indicator, then set up comparisons for any two countries: I now have an Excel file comparing aircraft departures in 35 countries.
But there is surely an omission. None of the sites raises a fist to their increasingly vocal critics. I found a question buried away on the IMF site – “How does the IMF respond to common criticisms”, which led to a robust page rebutting accusations about its austerity and brutality. Why does this not have greater prominence, given the increasing use by protest groups (and young people in general) of the web? Why does the World Bank not set up a portal aimed at another interest group: anti-globalisation protesters? Bring your enemies in and fight back: the web is an excellent field on which to do battle.

First published 22 October, 2003
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