Online services provided by your council: rewiring LocalDirectGov
One of the things I’ve had on my ToDo list for OpenlyLocal for a while was providing a a list of links to online services provided by each Local Authority.
Seemed like something that should be on the site, and available as structured data; it also looked like it should be fairly easy to do, as it’s a service that’s sort of provided by central government (LocalDirectGov), though with some shortcomings.
The problem is that from a usability point of view the Local DirectGov interface is a bit clunky. First you choose the service you want the link for, which means using an A-Z (always a bit of a problem). This is the landing page, and as you can see you’re on the A’s.
So let’s say you want Hazardous Waste. Is that under H or W? Actually it’s under W, so click on W, and then on “Waste – Hazardous” and a new window opens (why?). You then need to enter your postcode, town or council in a form and you’ll then be (usually) given a link to click through to get to the council page.
However, depending on what you put in there and what category you want you may be asked to choose a particular council or be told that you council does not provide the service online:
Now there is a limited way for external websites to interact with this service, using the ‘white-label’ Local DirectGov application. There’s even a case study. Basically, you download a list of services provided by each type of council, and then build a LocalDirectGov URL, which redirects to the council service.
Terrific. Not hard to do, even for a coder as slow as me. The only problem is that it doesn’t work. For the end user that is.
The thing is, there’s no way of knowing whether the local authority actually provides a given service online, and there’s a fair chance that the URL you’ve just built up will resolve to a bog-standard contact page, or even worse non-existent page resulting in a 404 error. Not great for users, and there appears no way of programmatically finding out if link will work, even though it’s there in Local DirectGov’s database (which is how it says that the service isn’t provided).
So, we’ve tried to fix on OpenlyLocal this and provide a better version. First we’ve collected up the useful data for each authority (i.e. where there’s a specific page to that subject, and not a 404 or generic “contact us” page). Then we’ve put it all on one page, and made it searchable too. It’s clean, simple, and works:
Finally, you can access the data through the API as XML or JSON. So far, we’ve done a little over half the local authorities, and should have all the rest done by sometime next week (it’s just a matter of tying the remaining local authorities to their LocalDirectGov IDs, which has to be done manually).
As ever, comments, bug reports and feature requests welcome.