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Tags: Application Development
For example, this link will display/hide this content...
The reality is, the content has been downloaded regardless if it's being displayed or not. In this example, the impact is trivial. But consider the media rich sites you've visited recently and imagine how inefficient it would be to manage the content this way. Imagine if you had to download all of the videos on YouTube before you could even view just one.
AJAX works differently. Not only does it allow content to be downloaded dynamically, it can also interact with the existing content that has already been downloaded without having to reload the page. We've all experienced this annoying perturbance; pages having to constantly reload after every click. It's distracting. The Web can do better.
Below you'll find a simple example of an AJAX component. The latest news releases from various federal agencies are fed from their respective websites and displayed as a dynamic news reel. As each news snippet is updated and displayed, notice that the page does not reload. And even though the content is being displayed here, the owner of that content does not change. When The White House updates their feed, it updates here automatically.
In actuality, AJAX is a new variation on an ancient concept in technology terms recently popularized by Google. Some might argue that the growing popularity of such tools is more due of the fact that the bandwidth and processing requirements have only recently caught up to the technology, but I think it's actually a lesson in usability. One that is symptomatic of a bigger problem particularly within the federal sector.
Usability is just a fancy term for something the commercial sector has been doing for decades. They study their consumers and learn to put the sugary cereals on the lower shelves so your kids can see them. They pump the room full of oxygen so you can gamble your life away and still feel a sense of euphoria. They put the Start Menu at the lower left-hand corner of your screen where you're most likely to find it.
But technologies such as AJAX and the Internet in general is redefining the whole landscape of consumer research. Usability has practically become an art-form in understanding human behavior and has transcended in ways that make it difficult to acknowledge just how susceptible we've become to this inundation of information. Companies pour an obscene amount of time and resources into the study of their consumers not only to make their products easier to use but also to make them more enjoyable to use. When you compare this design philosophy to the federal sector, the notion of usability is by far the most underrated aspect of "product development" (particularly information systems) in the federal sector in my opinion.
But this is a difficult problem to solve. Combined with the fact that the federal government contracts out a great deal of it's IT requirements and the growing interest in utilizing performance-based contracting, the trend in how the federal government builds information systems is leaving "usability" derelict. AJAX is a great example of how a usability problem can be solved using technology but in the world of federal contracting, technology decisions are usually left up to the contractor. And since there are often many ways to achieve the same functionality then it becomes the contractor's design preferences (or those imposed by COTS) that fill the "usability" gap. Even if the contractor were given a "usability" objective, how would it be measured? For example, let's say you established a performance metric to "Minimize the number of clicks or keystrokes required to complete a task" but then, what's the baseline? How would the government know if the contractor has met or exceeded the requirement?
I won't pretend to have all the answers but agencies such as HHS have taken the initiative to provide some general guidance on usability (visit www.usability.gov for more information). But there's still a lot the federal government has to learn about what's required to achieve usability especially when it comes to the specific IT initiatives it undertakes.
There's no doubt the Internet has revolutionized the way we obtain, exchange it, process and secure information. Never before has a single invention had such a profound and practical impact on all of mankind since perhaps canning, concrete or the internal combustion engine. I envy the generation now being born who will never know a world without the Internet. For them, the possibilities of the Internet will be innate and instinctual. Which is to say, the possibilities are endless.
But the Internet’s freedom and accessibility of information come at a price. It used to be, the word “publish” meant some level of editorial review, imperfect as that process may be. But now publish can mean literally a button you push before the entire world has access to what is published.
As a result, I feel there is an epidemic of misinformation plaguing our society spread via the Internet. I’ve always felt like the expression “perception is reality” was a cop-out by those who’ve conceded to the absence of critical thinking by the general public. I’ve think we’re better than that. I don’t want to believe that the majority of us are just empty molds that take on the first shape that comes along.
But I have heard it said that 80 percent of people assess the credibility of information based on how well it supports or conforms to their own existing opinions. Now before you read any further, I want you to think about that statistic I just dropped on you. Did you think, “That’s interesting” or did you think, “Is that true?”
There’s no arguing the Internet hosts a wealth of encyclopedic knowledge. It has also become the ultimate soapbox. The problem is, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the first amendment. But let’s face it, what we used to rely on to wade through a gauntlet of opinion and propaganda to get to the facts, something we used to refer to as “common sense”, isn’t so common anymore.
If someone’s right to free speech interferes with someone else’s ability to seek the truth, haven’t we defeated the purpose of those rights to begin with? We all know how damaging it can be yet there’s something seductive about the rumor mill. It’s how “small town” gossip gets from one end of Main Street to the other at speeds that seem to defy the laws of nature. And the way the Internet connects people in no other way previously imaginable, that “small town” has just gone global. So who’s supposed to be the sensible neighbor says, “Now everyone just calm down. I’m sure there’s a good explanation for all this.”
Now I could be mistaken but I’m pretty sure that’s the textbook definition for government. So what is your government doing to make sure its residents/citizens don’t get carried away by gossip/misinformation? Believe it or not, the US Federal Government has been making an honest attempt to better utilize the Internet to make information more readily available. It recognizes that in the absence of information, the general public will just make it up so why not be proactive about it? It has created web sites such as
Plus, there are web sites for practically every agency, commission, and bureau under the federal government (click here for a complete listing). Just remember, you can always tell you’re looking at an official federal site if the domain ends in .gov, .mil, or .fed.us. All you have to be willing to do is seek out these sources for the facts and don’t become part of the mythical 80 percent.