This week, the Dept. of Justice released the national sex offender public registry, a compilation of sex offender registries from various states. In general, I'm a big supporter of making these kinds of public records available and easily searchable. That's an important piece of eGovernment. This application, however, bothered me on several levels.
First, I question the value of a Federal site that is merely a compilation of data you can already get from the individual states. This is especially true for this site where the primary use, searching for sex offenders in your neighborhood, doesn't benefit from the aggregation. You can't search multiple states at once and I'm not sure why you'd want to.
On top of that, there is a basic design flaw that makes the application annoying to use and limits its composability with other applications. The flaw? It uses an HTTP POST, instead of a GET, to do the query. This causes various problems, some big and some small.
The first annoyance is that this breaks the back button. This happens when you use the application to search for sex offenders and want to view the detailed information about the list of names that gets returned. You click out to the address and picture and then want to go back to the list to see the next one. You'll be asked if you want to POST the data again in a dialog box. Ugh!
A second annoyance is that you can't bookmark the results of a search. Maybe I want to put it in del.icio.us, put a link on my blog, or send it to a friend in an email. No can do. The use of a POST ensures that there's not URL to bookmark, link to, or send in an email. The only thing you can do is redo the entire search. Ugh again!
The third flaw is that the data in the application is captured, unable to be easily used to by other applications. This is a combination of the POST and the fact the data is only available as HTML. The HTML is clean and could be scraped, but it would be easy enough for the HTML to include hCard microformats, or even for the application to have an option for getting XML as output.
No doubt someone at the DoJ had this on their list of projects and it was outsourced to a Web design firm with very little in the way of specifications. When it was done, it was probably signed off by someone who knows very little about good Web design. That's too bad.
Update: To illustrate my last point, several people wrote to tell me about a sex offender registry/Google maps mash-up that plots the people right on a map. This is easier to do when the original application is designed right--and there's no good reason to design it wrong. People will add all kinds of value to data if its made available in ways that lead to easy mash-ups. All the government needs to do is make the data available and others will do the rest. What could be easier?