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Bushfire information: hide as much as possible
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I live in Dereel, 100 km west of Melbourne. In early 2009 Victoria experienced its worst bushfires ever, and people are in a state of panic about a repeat. But they're not addressing what I see as a serious problem that could be easily solved: timely information about bushfires. The information is spread across at least five different media, all giving a different angle:

  1. Local radio broadcasts information at irregular intervals, but typically on the hour and half hour. In the meantime you need to listen to their programme, whether you want to or not, to be sure not to miss anything.
  2. There's a Bushfire Telephone Information Line (1 800 240 667) that you can call for specific information. On the one occasion I did so, they weren't aware of known fires in my area. That's why it's been the one time.
  3. There's the general emergency telephone line, 000. They do know what's going on, but you're not supposed to call them unless there's a dire emergency. Until they fix the Bushfire Information Line, though, I don't see any alternative. What would you do if you saw smoke?
  4. The Department of Sustaiiability and Environment maintains a web page with the user-friendly URL http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/DSE/nrenfoe.nsf/LinkView/519C51D981DAE41FCA257257000A5163DC25C965BDA0CAF5CA2573B400013504. That's not a cookie or session code, it's the URL. You'd have to see that as an attempt to discourage people from accessing it directly—but that's exactly what people want to do. In a moment of anger in summer 2008/2009, I aliased it to the shorter and easier to remember URL tinyurl.com/braindead-site.

    This page infuriates me for a number of reasons. I've already mentioned one, but there are others. In particular, it presents the information in a window, roughly limited to the width of the map above it:


    https://lemis.nyc3.digitaloceanspaces.com/grog/Photos/20091119/big/bushfires.gif
    Image title: bushfires          Dimensions:          1198 x 1116, 182 kB
    Make a single page with this image Hide this image
    Make this image a thumbnail Make thumbnails of all images on this page
    Make this image small again Display small version of all images on this page
    All images taken on Thursday, 19 November 2009, thumbnails          All images taken on Thursday, 19 November 2009, small
    Diary entry for Thursday, 19 November 2009

     

    As a result, the information is truncated, though it would comfortably fit on the page if it hadn't been artificially limited. It used to have scroll bars, but they've removed them some time in the last year. Here's what it looked like earlier:


    https://lemis.nyc3.digitaloceanspaces.com/grog/Photos/20090122/big/fires-2.gif
    Image title: fires 2          Dimensions:          1620 x 1080, 104 kB
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    Make this image a thumbnail Make thumbnails of all images on this page
    Make this image small again Display small version of all images on this page
    All images taken on Thursday, 22 January 2009, thumbnails          All images taken on Thursday, 22 January 2009, small
    Diary entry for Thursday, 22 January 2009

     

    The columns at the right are not the least important; the last one is the status, which was completely hidden in this particular display. And I couldn't even look in the HTML: they appear to use some Javascript tricks to get the information from elsewhere. I'll persevere and find how to get the information and display it correctly, but I'm left with the impression that the design of this page depends more on the ideas of some “clever” web programmers than on a desire to get timely information. There's no date or time on the page, the layout assumes low-resolution displays and breaks badly on higher-resolution displays, and of course it contains many validation errors But then, not even DSE wants to rely on it:

    This state map is automatically generated and may contain errors.
  5. The CFA maintains a Information web site with current activity information. It used to be terrible, but at least it now displays all the information it intends too. It renders badly on my screen, presumably because of invalid assumptions made by the web programmers. At the time of writing, the W3 Markup Validation Service found 197 errors on the page.

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