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Microformats

One area of possible development for the Aberdeenshire Council website I’d be interested in is adding microformat code into suitable pages. A microformat is a convention for adding information to a web page. The idea is that, as the information conforms to a set format, software can identify and process the information appropriately. It makes the information machine readable.

For example, if we had a page to advertise the Taste of Grampian Food Festival we could outline the relevant information using microformats as :

Taste of Grampian

Saturday 6th June
09:30-16:30

Thainstone Centre
more information

Contact Details

Thainstone Centre
Inverurie
AB51 5XZ
Phone: 01467 623700

The underlying code code for the above section is :

<div class="vevent">
<h1 class="summary">Taste of Grampian</h1>
<abbr class="dtstart" title="2009-06-06T09:30">Saturday 6th June</abbr>
<abbr class="dtend" title="2009-06-06T16:30">09:30-16:30</abbr>
<abbr class="location" title="Thainstone Centre"></abbr>
<div class="geo">Thainstone Centre<abbr class="latitude" title="57.257254"></abbr><abbr class="longitude" title="-2.374635"></abbr>
<a class="url" href="http://www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/events/detail.asp?eventID=1327">more information</a>
</div>
<div class="vcard">
<h2 class="summary">Contact Details</h2>
<div class="fn org">Thainstone Centre</div>
<div class="adr">
<div><span class="locality">Inverurie</span></div>
<div><span class="postal-code">AB51 5XZ</span></div><br />
<div>Phone: <span class="tel">01467 623700</span></div>
<div>Email: <span class="email"><a href="mailto:food.and.drink@aberdeenshire.gov.uk">food.and.drink@aberdeenshire.gov.uk</a></span></div>
</div>

It uses two microformats, hCalendar for the event information and hCard for the contact details. Additionally this also includes location information using the geo microformat.

<div class="vcard">
<h2 class="summary">Contact Details</h2>
<div class="fn org">Thainstone Centre</div>
<div class="adr">
<div><span class="locality">Inverurie</span></div>
<div><span class="postal-code">AB51 5XZ</span></div><br />
<div>Phone: <span class="tel">01467 623700</span></div>
<div>Email: <span class="email"><a href="mailto:food.and.drink@aberdeenshire.gov.uk">food.and.drink@aberdeenshire.gov.uk</a></span></div>
</div>

This is all very well but what practical use can microformats be used for. One common way is the use of browser add-ons to read the information so that it can be used as required. Common add-ons are Operator for FireFox and Oomph for Internet Explorer. When you view a page containing microformats the add-ons allow you to save the event into a calendaring system, save the contact details into an address book and view the location in an online mapping system.

For example, viewing the above code with a FireFox – Operator combination produces the following :

Screenshot showing operator Contacts tab

Screenshot showing operator Contacts tab

Screenshot showing operator Events tab

Screenshot showing operator Events tab

Screenshot showing operator Locations tab

Screenshot showing operator Locations tab

The event details can be exported to a calendar program such as Outlook or saved to an online calendaring system such as Yahoo. Likewise the contact details can also be saved to Outlook or saved to an online system. Finally the location of the event can be viewed using a program like Google Earth or viewed online using an online mapping website.

The actions these browser add-ons allow are cetainly useful but would the number of people using them make the extra work adding microformat content to our website worthwhile. My own feeling  is that we could easily add microformat code to pages that are created dynamically but the work adding them by hand to individual pages wouldn’t be justifiable.

Inevitably, there are problems associated with microformats. The major problem is that some microformats use the <abbr> tag to hide machine readable code. This can cause accessibility problems for screen readers used by the visually impaired. This issue has caused the BBC to stop using these microformats as explained here. Also, microformats are probably only suitable for pages with a small number of events. If we wanted to supply a larger number of events an iCalendar file might be more appropriate.

I don’t think microformats are a long term solution but could be useful in the meantime until other approaches, such as embedded XML, are better supported.

So the question I am asking is, should we start using microformats on the Aberdeenshire Council website? I look forward to any feedback.

I don’t think microformats are a long term solution but could be useful in the meantime until other approaches, such as embedded XML, are better supported.

So the question I am asking is, should we start using microformats on the Aberdeenshire Council website? I look forward to any feedback.

Further information on microformats can be found at http://microformats.org/.

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Firstly, thanks for all your feedback so far. It’s great to hear from some users and what they think of the new design. Because the web team here look at the website almost all the time it is often difficult for us to see the wood for the trees when it comes to what works and what doesn’t!

At the moment the team is busy building site templates which will allow us to carry out direct user testing. We’ll then be able to check some of the points which some of you have made about the clarity of text and the use of colour. We should have lots more screenshots for you to take a look at early next week so watch this space.

In the meantime, I’d like to pick up on a point made by R Wilson about the possibility of adding a forum to the site. This is something which the web team and the Council’s website management group have discussed a number of times over the last few years. We’re keen to drive traffic to the site and create a sense of community which a forum could obviously help to do. But there’s always been a worry about the time needed to moderate the discussions and the potential for abuse.

For every successful Council website forum there appear to countless others which fail, either through lack of any interest or through inappropriate use and/or lack of adequate management. I suspect that a key factor if these are to be succesful is the active and positive participation of Council staff. I’d be interested to hear from our own staff if they think this would be a useful addition to the website?

If there’s a general feeling from our site users that this is something which would be useful then we can think about how it might be taken forward in the future. Is this a good idea and, if so, how should it be managed?

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