I congratulate the Government of Sierra Leone for taking the bold step of creating websites for almost all Government Ministries, Institutions, Secretariats and Commissions. Some of us living in the Diaspora and at home have long been waiting to see it happen. I can now proudly talk more about Sierra Leone to strangers and refer them online to search the word Sierra Leone and learn more about what it has to offer.
In as much as the Government’s intentions are great and in place during this digital age, I have few information security concerns regarding the platforms, software and procedures used to develop and manage government websites, and how major search engines like Google, Yahoo, Msn and Bing and browsers like Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera display search results and warnings.
Being me and a Sierra Leonean by nationality with experience in this field, I cannot sit and do nothing to correct these problems. I am sure; we all understand the situation in Sierra Leone in terms of the ICT infrastructure and how it was damaged during the war, but things are changing rapidly and a lot is going on now in the ICT field in Sierra Leone. I expected the new National Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Advisory Council launched sometime last year to look into these issues or create some standards. But again it may be the responsibility of the Ministry of Information and Communication. I am not sure who is really responsible or who is to be held accountable for these issues. One think I know is that we can fix it quickly to give Sierra Leone the image and reputation it deserves before it becomes 50 this April 27th. Here is a selected list of issues I want to bring to the attention of those responsible;
- Security warnings in Search Engine results
- The platforms used to develop the websites
- Managing the websites
- Overall look and feel of the websites
- User interaction
Security Warnings In Search Engine Results
During the past two to three months I noticed that some malware warnings when I search the following government websites using Google or try to browse them using Google’s Chrome, or Apple’s Safari, or Mozilla Firefox. I am being warned that the site(s) may harm my computer and given the option to ignore the warning or get out as fast as possible. Below are the two I most recently checked and got the message
This is very bad for our reputation online as a country. I will recommend the webmaster(s) or companies in charge of the above websites check the sites and make sure the warnings are cleared. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need help cleaning up the warning. I have worked with Google and the other providers in the past to clean up websites displaying these messages.
The Platforms Used To Develop The Websites
I noticed 90% of our government websites are using Joomla and hosted on shared hosting platforms with datacenters located in Europe or North America. Joomla is a great system and lots of government entities around the world are using it but we need to use it wisely. My main concern is Security. Is the government making sure those, hired to develop and maintain these Joomla websites are trained and qualified to develop, manage, maintain, secure and update the Joomla system 24/7 around the clock. If this is not being done now, I will advise someone start thinking about it right away. Read one of my articles on Joomla Security at http://www.sierraexpressmedia.com/archives/21028 to learn more.
Managing The Websites
Who is responsible to manage government websites? I see the names of companies who are hosting and those who designed the sites but cannot really see information about who is managing these sites on a daily basis. Who do we contact if we have problems accessing the websites? How often are the website’s being updated with new and fresh information?
I recommend each Ministry/Commission/Secretariat/Institution to appoint at least 1 staff to manage their website on a daily basis if not already done. Someone with higher authority needs to monitor the websites to ensure they are presenting information in the manner it is meant to be presented and for the right audience. Your website is like the front desk of your office especially to those without physical access to your office location. Please make it look appealing, inviting and official. Do not display pages with coming soon… information. Write at least one or two sentences on each page and inform users that more information is coming soon.
Overall Look And Feel Of The Websites
I observed all the government websites look and feel differently. In my opinion, this is bad. What is or are some of the identifiable features of each government website in Sierra Leone? The Coat of Arms with different shades of colors? The national flag with different shades of green, white and blue or the name of the site owner? I am not sure what it is.
I will recommend the ministry in charge of e-governance appoint a team of User Interface Designers and other ICT experts to create policies, procedures, official government graphics (Coat of Arm, National Flag, Ministry/Commission/Secretariat/Institution Logo and etc). Define official shades of green, white and blue to be used on each government website, Check hosting providers, and web-design company backgrounds and review qualifications of developers.
Website visitors need a means to contact website owners, we like to be engaged and also have our say in some fashion. Please provide RSS Feeds, Newsletter subscriptions, User Satisfaction surveys, feedback forms, and direct email contact forms that are accessible, operational and monitored daily.
Assume you are a stranger that knows nothing about Sierra Leone but want to learn more and maybe visit the country one day to start an investment or just have fun. To do your research, you visit one of the popular search engines like Google.com and type the word “About Sierra Leone”, “Sierra Leone”, “Sierra Leone government”, or simply type “government.sl”, “education.gov.sl”, “finance.gov.sl”, “information.gov.sl”and etc. You will notice that the results of your search in all four popular search engines will produce the following;
For search terms “government.sl”, “education.gov.sl”, “finance.gov.sl”, “information.gov.sl” you will get the below respectively
priu.gov.lk Local Government Elections are being held throughout the island and so far voting ….. Lankan envoy invites international community to join hands with SL …
anticorruption.gov.slThis site may harm your computer.
Official government commission addressing corruption and its adverse effect on nation building, founded by Parliament in February 2000.
www.anticorruption.gov.sl/ – Similar
finance.gov.sl Joomla – the dynamic portal engine and content management system.
www.finance.gov.sl/ – Cached
information.gov.slThis site is still under construction and will be complete soon. © 2011. Ministry of Information & Communication. All Rights Reserved.
information .gov.sl/ – Cached
What will be your impression of Sierra Leone after visiting any or all of the links above? In my opinion as an IT professional, I will think as follows;
- The government or the companies being hired to develop and maintain these websites are not doing certain things the right way.
- The government is not conscious of online security.
- There is no oversight committee to review the websites before they are published.
- Standard operating procedures were not followed during the design and development stages.
- I should try to hack these sites and make some money or just to make a point.
As an IT dummy but web research savvy, I will think as follows;
- May be this country is new to e-government.
- Someone or group of people responsible for developing, publishing and maintaining these government websites are not doing something right.
- Where is the information I am looking for? I cannot find much about his country.
- What information should I trust to make my judgment?
- Are these website’s really official government websites?
I came across the final draft of the ICT Policy document published at http://nicttf.gov.sl/images/stories/docs/NICTTF_FINAL_DRAFT_ICT_POLICY_210509_v2.pdf and wanted to point out a few things I noticed. Read the extract below
Political objectives of the ICT policy
- To enhance better transparency and facilitate communication with citizens through E-governance;
- To integrate Sierra Leone regionally and globally through the use of ICTs;
- To re-brand the image of Sierra Leone by providing information on progress and achievements in Sierra Leone and to promote the distribution of culturally sensitive materials through various ICT channels;
Economic objectives of the ICT policy
- To improve efficiency in the public sector through effective use of ICT infrastructure, applications and services;
Social objectives of the ICT policy
- To improve the basic living standard of Sierra Leoneans;
- To facilitate and support the universal freedom of affordable access to information;
- To identify and implement all relevant procedures related to cyber security, electronic security and data protection to protect ICT users;
- To engage the Diaspora in the development of Sierra Leone through e-interaction; education institutions.
How can Sierra Leone achieve the above objectives? Are we there yet? Can we make it before we become 50 in April 2011? Let me have your take on it. Find website links of Government entities online at http://www.sierraexpressmedia.com/archives/20917 and be the judge.