The Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit that urges the use of the Internet to catalyze government transparency,  proposed a redesign of the Supreme Court’s web site after the Justices’ asked Congress that control of the site be moved in-house. Over the summer, we looked at the design mock-ups and talked to Daniel Schuman, the Foundation’s policy counsel, about their goals for the redesign and their future plans.   In the following e-mail Q&A, Schuman describes Sunlight’s project in more detail and gives some  recommendations for how to build an open, useful government web site.

How does the Supreme Court web site redesign fit into the Sunlight Foundation's overall objectives?

The Sunlight Foundation's mission is the promotion of government transparency and openness. We encourage the government to make information available online, in real time, in ways that both humans and computers can understand.

The Supreme Court is the primary source of certain types of legal information that is crucial to how we understand our democracy. However, much of the information generated by the Court is difficult or expensive for most people to access, and often times is provided in formats that are difficult to use.

Our redesign of the Court’s website would help more people understand what the Court does and how it functions.

Do you hope to work with the Court directly? If they don't incorporate the kind of changes you've suggested, do you anticipate creating an independent web site (similar to OpenCongress.org)?

We hope that the Court will be open to new ideas for improving how it interacts with the public. The great success of SCOTUSBlog and SCOTUSWiki shows that there is great hunger for legal information. Considering the current website’s age and content, it is time for an upgrade. Indeed, as the Court seeks funds from Congress to improve its website, we hope that they will give serious consideration to significant improvements to their public face.

We would welcome the opportunity to sit down with the Court and discuss ideas for improving its website. We have already done so with a handful of federal agencies, resulting in significant improvements to their websites. We have no interest, however, in building the Court’s website ourselves.

In the last several months, we have been contacted by organizations that republish Court information to ask if they could use our designs "“ permission we gladly gave. Were the Court to pass on updating its user interface, we hope that they will make available more data, particularly information that only the Court possesses. This way, technologists can use that information to build websites that help give people a better window into Court. However, we hope that the Court will embrace this opportunity to provide citizens an unfiltered and in depth perspective into its activities.

How many developers/ Sunlight staffers worked on this project? Can you describe what the brainstorming process is like at Sunlight?

Every project at Sunlight is different, but this one was pretty self contained. Two Sunlight staffers had primary responsibility for this project: Daniel Schuman, our policy counsel, and Ali Felski, Sunlight Labs’ Senior Designer. We spent about a month coming up with the initial design, which we released in June.

Prior to the June release, we had consulted with a handful of experts, who provided some additional guidance. However, we anticipated that we would receive a lot of feedback once we released the initial design. Fortunately, we were right.

After the initial design went live, we engaged in spirited discussions on listservs, in meeting with Court experts and website gurus, in consultation with academics and legal practitioners, during presentations at conferences, and so on. At the end of all of those conversations, we decided to narrow the focus of the redesign to what the Court could do right now. In late August, we released the final version of our mock-up.

To the extent possible, Sunlight tries to be transparent about much of the work that we do. Members of the public can read our blogs, join our listservs, follow us on twitter, etc. Good ideas come from all directions. We try to engage with others as much as possible, and we are willing to explore new ideas.

What are the essential elements of a useful government web site?

Often times, attempts at designing a useful government website go off track because of barriers that designers/developers encounter from within the government. After talking to a number of agencies, we have learned that barriers can vary by agency, and often range from budgetary issues to accommodating the bureaucracy. Here are some big picture concepts that all government agencies can incorporate when redesigning their websites:

* Use simple, clear language that the general public can understand. All too often, sites that use esoteric jargon or assume that users have certain specialized knowledge leave many users behind. Also, with respect to websites that contain numerous reports or lots of data, government agencies should make sure that information is understandable to machines as well. Instead of placing data only in pdf files, information should also be available in machine readable formats such as json, csv, or xml.

* Website developers should not be afraid to display contextual information that explain lists of links. Giving users more information will lead to more informed clicks, thereby increasing the rate of success on a site as measured in terms of users finding what they are looking for. Along the same lines, make sure that information is organized in a rational way. Designers should use tools like "card sorting," which will allow potential users of a website to go through its content and organize it in ways that make sense to that user. The result of using "card sorting" is that designers can make more informed decisions about the structure of a site.

What's next for the Sunlight Foundation Labs? There's some development activity to make PACER and the federal judiciary's web sites more open and accessible (like the "RECAP" Firefox extension), but what do you think could be done to give the public better access to court records and opinions?

The next major steps for Sunlight Labs (which is a part of the Sunlight Foundation) is the creation of a national data catalog, which is an index of all government data; a mock-up redesign of the FCC’s website; the expansion of TransparencyCorps, which involves citizens in small, discrete tasks to better classify and understand government data; and the ongoing growth of a nationwide community of developers.

The Sunlight Foundation will continue its work to create government transparency, especially in the executive and legislative branches, by crafting and pursuing policies to make that happen and creating the technology to help bring that to fruition.

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