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Ridding the NHS of digital acne


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Friday, 6 August 2010

Ridding the NHS of digital acne

According to yesterday’s papers the NHS has too many websites, many of them are dead and few of them fit for purpose.

In their enthusiasm to inform, the creators of many of these sites forgot that most people don’t have the time or the inclination to spend several hours a day online.

They tried to make websites engaging and “sticky” because that’s what defines a successful website. For most users, unless they have retired or find themselves doing a long stretch in one of Her Majesty’s excellent penal establishments, the last thing they want is to hang out online all day. People who use websites at work want to get in, find what they need and get out again as quickly as possible.

Because the NHS is a big and complex place, people built big and complicated websites. Because the NHS accommodates lots of specialist interests, we built a lot of websites to cater to them. Any movement, cause or policy programme without its own website would be written off as spurious, temporary or lacking in seriousness. And, of course, because we like to work in small, disconnected silos, doing the same thing over and over again, we built our websites in the same image.

So it’s no surprise to hear that of the 4121 NHS websites identified in a leaked NHS review of “digital communications”, 1000 have fallen into disrepair and simply drift aimlessly in cyberspace like so many decommissioned satellites.

Many of these sites, though well intentioned, were also unnecessary or badly designed or both. But let’s not be too harsh. Proliferation was a product of too much hormonal activity in the teenage years of the internet, like acne.

Now the internet is moving into a more mature phase it is sensible to take stock. Even before the latest review, a moratorium on the development of new government websites was already in place. The danger of stories like those that appeared yesterday is that they encourage us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s not new websites that we need to curtail but bad new websites, pointless new websites and websites that make more work than they save.

NHS Networks recently did a survey of PCT and GP commissioners. Asked to name three websites they use regularly in their work, the 234 respondents in the survey identified more than 150 different sites. The top 10 sites accounted for about 40 of responses, but that leaves an awfully long tail – 140 sites that are of use to somebody, somewhere, some of the time.

Our solution to the problem is to bring some of this information together in one place.

Look out for a new section on NHS Networks later this month the sole purpose of which will be to shorten the time it takes to get essential commissioning information and cut down on tedious hours spend trudging around hundreds of websites.

There is nothing particularly novel about this idea – portals for aggregating information have been around for years – but it should help save time and frustration.

We’re thinking about the next step, too.

The next generation of internet technology will solve the proliferation problem. The so-called “semantic web” will understand what we need to find and give us just that, rather than a million cul-de-sacs to go down. The idea of a search, which puts the onus on the poor user, will give way to the concept of finding. It’s not for nothing that Apple, which knows a thing or two about usability uses the term Finder on the iMac.

NHS Networks is working with the National Innovation Centre, which is developing some amazing Web 3.0 technology around the concept of linked data, which promises to solve problems of synchronisation and version control for complex distributed information.

Put all this stuff together and you don’t need websites or portals as we know them now. You just have people who need information and an internet that knows where to find it fast.

So while we applaud the move to a more intelligent information management environment and an end to proliferating web sites, we must hope that the findings of the digital communications review are also used intelligently.