Letter: Website Broken in Arlington

Letter: Website Broken in Arlington


Dear Chair de Ferranti and members of the Arlington County Board:

It's been a month since the "new" Arlington County website was launched on Oct. 18. The new site has been riddled with broken links, with some documents mission-critical to meetings taking place over the the past month that were unavailable. This problem continues to persist, even though there are commercially available "spiders" and other tools to identify and fix broken links on websites: https://altitudemarketing.com/blog/find-broken-links-screaming-frog/.

This revamp of the county website has been akin to the burning down of a library with half of the books still inside. In this case, the "books" still exist — the community simply has no access to them. This is not what the public was promised when the county decided to go paperless. Quite the opposite: we were promised to have far better access to current and past public documents and data, all at our fingertips.

Whereas the old site's search function was admittedly weak, the new search engine seems little improved. There is no way to narrow a search (for example to use a Boolean search string) to produce search results that are a closer match. Even if you know a document's title, there is no guarantee you can locate it using the site's search function (typically, placing a title in quotation marks, for example, would pull up that particular document).

Here's a title of just one of the documents that can no longer be located on the county's website: "COLUMBIA PIKE COMMERCIAL MARKET STUDY" The first item in the search results is "Columbia Pike Recipes for You" — not even close. And this document title isn't contained anywhere on the first page of search results or the second or even the third.

A browser search (using Google, etc.) formerly enabled one to perform external searches of the county's website in order to locate documents not easily found using the site's search function. Unfortunately today, even when one finds a county document listed in Google search results, the link to it is frequently broken. In this case, the 2019 Columbia Pike Commercial Market Study does exist on AED's own website (https://www.arlingtoneconomicdevelopment.com/AEDMura7/assets/File/Columbia%20Pike%20Study/Columbia%20Pike%20Commercial%20Market%20Study_Final.pdf). So the document can be accessed online. However, this option isn't always the available.

As for broken links on the county's website, consider the county web page for the Police Practices Work Group as an example. Although I checked these four links on 11-4-2021, I double-checked them again this evening, 11-8-2021, with the same disappointing results: three of the first four links to documents remain nonfunctional, producing a result of a "Page or Site not Found" error message. ...

No matter how good a site's search engine may be, it is essentially useless if that site is riddled with broken links. Because the county is now paperless, the public has no equivalent alternate access to public documents — especially to older documents and information — that may have relevance to decisions or changes being considered today.

Forcing members of the public and media to spend inordinate amounts of time hunting for copies of county documents and data isn't just wasting people's time. It increases the likelihood that people are forced to file Freedom of Information requests for routine documents that should be readily available to the public on the county website or in a comprehensive online archive to which the public has access.

The withholding of public records runs counter to open-government guidelines, good-government principles and to the spirit if not the letter of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

When can the public expect reasonable access to public documents and data to resume, either on the county's own website or in a dedicated online archive?