decisions. Federal statistics resources support an increasingly diverse range of users (e.g., high school students, journalists, local community groups, business market analysts, and policy makers) and tasks. The pervasiveness of IT, exemplified by the general familiarity with the Web interface, is continually broadening the user base.
Some Policy Issues Associated with Electronic Dissemination
In her presentation at the workshop, Patrice McDermott, from OMB Watch, observed that if information suddenly began to be disseminated by electronic means alone, some people would no longer be able to access it. Even basic telephone service, a precursor for low-cost Internet access, is not universal in the United States. It is not clear that schools and libraries can fill the gap: schools are not open, for the most part, to people who do not have children attending them, and finding resources to invest in Internet access remains a challenge for both schools and public libraries. McDermott added that research by OMB Watch indicates that people see a substantial difference between being directed to a book that contains Census data and being helped to access and navigate through online information. Another issue is the burden imposed by the shifting of costs: if information is available only in electronic form, users and intermediaries such as libraries end up bearing much of the cost of providing access to it, including, for example, the costs of telecommunications, Internet service, and printing.
Workshop participants observed, however, that many are likely to remain without ready access to information online, raising a set of social and policy questions (Box 2.1). However, over time, a growing fraction of potential users can be expected to gain network access, making it increasingly beneficial to place information resources online, together with capabilities that support their interpretation and enhance the statistical literacy of users. In the meantime, online access is being complemented by published sources and by the journalists, community groups, and other intermediaries who summarize and interpret the data.
The responsibility of a data product designer or provider does not end with the initial creation of that product. There are some important human-computer interaction (HCI) design challenges in supporting a wide range of users. A key HCI design principle is “know thy user ”; various approaches to learning about and understanding user abilities and needs are discussed below. Besides underscoring the need to focus on users, workshop participants pointed to some specific issues: universal access, support for users with limited statistical literacy, improved visualization techniques, and new modes of interacting with data. These are discussed in turn below.