The website for meeting agendas sucks. It gets almost everything wrong, from proprietary technologies to obsolete, inaccessible formats.
By Ryan McGreal
Published April 08, 2014
Since 2011, the City of Hamilton has contracted with a company called SIRE Technologies to record and stream Council and Committee meetings.
The technology package the City received from the company included the ability to post meeting agendas with associated reports and other documents. However, until recently the City used its own existing website content management system.
Then, in mid-March, City staff started using the SIRE Technologies system to host meeting and documents. I first noticed the change when writing about the Cannon Street Cycle Track, which the General Issues Committee considered on March 19.
I was no longer able to copy the URL (the website address) for a document from the GIC meeting page and share it in an article on RTH. When I tried to copy the URL of a document, I got a URL that would expire and stop working shortly after I had copied it.
Instead, the best I could manage was to link to a clumsy links page.
Aggravating as that is, it is only one small part of what is wrong with this service. To put it bluntly, the website sucks. It gets almost everything wrong, technology wise.
The SIRE website employs obsolete and bizarre web design decisions to make for an awkward, inaccessible user experience.
Specifically, it uses HTML frames: each HTML page is a container with other HTML pages inside it. HTML Frames are an obsolete format that have been almost universally abandoned due to poor usability:
Clicking on a link causes unexpected behaviour, e.g. having the link open inside one of the frames instead of in the full browser window.
It is not possible to save the current state of an HTML frame set in a URL that can be shared with others.
HTML frames perform poorly in screen readers (for blind web users) and mobile browsers.
Frames are hard for search engines to crawl and index, so content becomes harder to find.
Frames break the Back button, which is a core navigation tool, and can leave users lost and confused.
In the 1990s, when many websites were composed of HTML text files, frames seemed like a way to make it easier to update content that appears on every page of a website - like a menu - by storing it in a single file that every page includes. (The first website I ever built, in 1999, used HTML frames.)
However, other superior methods of storing shared content have since rendered frames obsolete. Most websites today are generated by a dynamic content management system that can handle changing content that appears across various pages.
The SIRE website itself is built on a dynamic web page framework, so it is really unclear why they also decided to use frames.
In addition to the various ways that HTML frames break URLs, the site employs a cumbersome URL pattern that makes it difficult to understand and navigate.
A website's resources are supposed to be stored in a hierarchy of URLs in directories and subdirectories, with the base website accessible through the root URL. This allows website visitors to navigate up the hierarchy by changing the URL to remove layers from the path. But if you try to visit the base URL for the Hamilton subdomain, http://hamilton.siretechnologies.com/, instead of a main page you get a login form to administer the site.
Likewise, instead of clean URLs, the site exposes its underlying technology (Microsoft ASP.NET) in the file extension (.aspx) and defines individual resources via a querystring parameter. For example, the URL for the March 19, 2014 GIC meeting is http://hamilton.siretechnologies.com/sirepub/mtgviewer.aspx?meetid=588, whereas a cleaner, more portable, longer-lasting and technology-agnostic URL would be something like http://hamilton.siretechnologies.com/meeting/588.
Worst of all, links to individual documents associated with a meeting can no longer be linked directly. This is literally the most basic function of a website - to provide URLs that link to resources on the website - and the SIRE website gets it brutally wrong.
Again, using the example of the March 19, 2014 GIC meeting, you might scroll down the frame on the left (with the agenda) to item 7.3, the Cannon Street Bi-directional Cycle Track Pilot Project (PW14031) (Wards 1, 2 and 3).
If you click on that link, it opens the content not in the browser window but in the HTML frame on the bottom right side of the same page in a frame titled "Supporting Materials". It includes links to four files:
Of course, the text of the titles is not linked; that would be too usable. Instead, you have to point your cursor or tap your finger on the tiny PDF logo to the left of the titles.
But it gets even worse. If you click one of the document links it redirects to a URL with a long "cache" string in the address. It works for a little while, but then seems to expire. Subsequent requests to the URL result in a Not Found error from the server.
The SIRE website uses a proprietary browser plug-in, Microsoft Silverlight, to stream the video. This is a very poor technology choice, for several reasons:
Silverlight was meant to compete with Flash, an older proprietary browser plug-in that has an established market share. Because Silverlight failed to make significant market inroads, Microsoft indicated after releasing version 5 in 2011 that the technology is now deprecated and will no longer be actively developed.
Silverlight does not work on mobile devices on either the iOS or Android mobile platform. It doesn't even work in the browser on Microsoft's own Windows Phone devices!
It barely works on computers running the Linux operating system, using an independently-developed open-source implementation called Moonlight, which is no longer in development since Silverlight itself is not in wide use.
A much more reasonable choice would have been to serve content using HTML5 video with a fallback to Flash, rather than a technology that is not only proprietary but also marginal in both platform reach and market share.
More generally, the SIRE website uses expensive, proprietary Microsoft technology instead of the free and open source software that powers the Web. Most websites, including most of the 10,000 biggest sites, run on a stack of technologies that are licenced such that anyone is free to use, copy, read, modify and distribute the source code.
Free and open source software dominates the web because of its many net benefits. Since everyone can access the source code, desired features are added in a timely fashion and bugs and vulnerabilities are quickly found and fixed by security analysts.
Mature free and open source software, like the tools that power the web, are supported by strong communities of technology professionals and are stable, robust and secure.
Instead of the confidence that comes from open peer review of free and open source software, proprietary software must be used with blind trust of the company that controls the source code.
Instead of the ability to contribute to the project to add desired features or fix bugs, proprietary technology users must depend on the company that owns the code to do this or simply accept that the company has decided not to.
|Operating System||Linux||Windows Server|
|Web Server||Apache, nginx||IIS|
|Database||MySQL, PostgreSQL||Microsoft SQL Server|
|Website||PHP, Ruby, Python, etc.||VB, C#, F# on .NET|
With open source software, if the community supporting a project dissolves or abandons it, another organization can take it over and keep the project going. With proprietary software, if the company that owns a project stops supporting it, the project shuts down and its users are left unsupported.
RTH contacted the City to ask who on earth decided to go with this technology, and what criteria they used to make the decision. We were directed to Jay Adams, a Service Delivery Experience Advisor for the City. I am given to understand that Adams wasn't responsible for the decision to use this technology but was left with the fun task of explaining it.
Adams stressed that the tool to manage agendas and documents is already included in the streaming service from SIRE and the City did not have to spend additional money to start using it.
According to Adams, using this service instead of the City's existing content management system "will enable faster publication of the materials to ensure citizens receive the information as quickly as possible."
However, he acknowledged that the technology has some serious accessibility and usability problems, including the broken document linking. "We will be taking urgent steps to restore easy access to these materials as quickly as possible."
City staff do not appear to have done any community consultation before adopting the SIRE system. If they had, they might have learned about these problems - and gotten a better sense of how such a system should work - before rolling it out.
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