Commission brings fun to Europa web site

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The Commission’s front page increasingly puts non-specialist, general information on the EU and communication at the core of the Europa web site, which is now hosting almost all the Commission’s official published content.  

The Commission says the goal behind hosting all content under the same internet domain is “to provide a common view of our information to the external world and to avoid overlaps”. 

The Europa server has now grown to more than 4 million hosted pages and documents plus 76 databases that generate web pages dynamically. Almost 1.8 billion pageviews were recorded in 2005, about 17 times as many as in 1998, when statistics started. To help this growing amount of users find their way through the growing amount of information available on Europa, the website is increasingly organised around about 30 thematic or activity portals, which supplement the traditional grouping by Directorates General

The  Europa portal, which was launched in its present form in early 2003, is central to the Commission’s new communication strategy. While 106 out of 110 links within  the Commission’s institutional portal point to web addresses within the europa.eu.int domain (the remaining four point to the Council Presidency and to Eurostat), the Europa portal links (under the “Institutions” and “Documents” tabs) to other EU bodies just as well as to the Commission itself. The portal thus meets the requirement of looking at the EU as a whole. 

What is perhaps even more remarkable about the Europa portal is the presence and prominent display, at the very top of the Europa hierarchy, of features such as the Easy Reading CornerThe EU at a glance or Europa Go!, which are aimed at non-specialists. While these pages do contain some information, they are more about the second and latest big priority of Europa: communication. 

These parts of the web page aim not so much at providing the large, yet hermetic cycle of EU specialists with ever more specialised and detailed knowledge of the EU, but rather at convincing people with only an intermediate knowledge of the how the EU works and the activities of the benefits of the Union. This concept was laid out in the EU’s Communication Action Plan, as well as in Plan D and, most recently, in the White Paper on Communication

Jean-Bernard Quicheron, a long-time web developer for the Europa site who is now retired, told EURACTIV: "Let's not forget that Europa  is an interinstitutional server and that the institutions's positions are not along the same lines on all issues, for which reason there will always be frictions in the way that information is conceived. If you just look at Justice and Home Affairs, the DG that I last worked for, there were sometimes very deep divides between the Commission, the Council and the Parliament. [...] I think the Europa  team is going the right way, in that it provides an eclectic choice that is adaptable to everyone's needs. What remains to be done is to develop better search tools and better access to the specialised DG sites."

On the Europastart pageChristophe Dupriez,  web developer and founder of DB Scape,  says: "I think that this start page is quite logical. It is well-linked to different user's needs. I am not too happy about the typography, especially if you compare it to any of the following pages, most of which are in a more readable font. Unfortunately the following pages don't adhere to the same logical structure as the start page. The general principle when creating a hierarchical structure should be to leave all superior levels as well as horizontal 'sibling' levels directly accessible."

History of the Europa site

The Commission's first experimental internet presences began in the early 1990s, mainly by two DGs: Information Society and External Relations. The first web page of DG External Relations was brought online in 1991. A Commission veteran who was part of this project gave EURACTIV an anecdotal account of how things worked back then: 

"At that time, there was only one computer in the whole DG that had internet access - superiors were afraid that workers were going to use the computer for all kinds of nonsense, so this computer was locked up in a room to which only the head of section  had a key. The website was mainly a collection of options for accession treaties. It was about convincing formerly communist countries of the benefits of EU accession, so you could say that we had a somewhat more entrepreneurial approach to things than most other DGs. At that time no-one in the EU had a clue of what the internet was all about and to what uses it could be brought. The whole content was written on Memopad, then sent to Luxembourg by FTP to the company who actually administered the web page... It was the good old days, we had fun." 

The few computers that the Commission had in the early 1990s were linked up by an internal network, but there was no intranet with webpages. 

By the mid-90s, every official working at the Commission had a computer and an e-mail address and an intranet was set up to improve the dissemination of internal information. In February 1995, the Europa site was launched on the occasion of the G7 ministerial meeting on the information society organised by the Commission in Brussels to "encourage and promote the innovation and development of new technologies, including, in particular, the implementation of open, competitive, and world-wide information infrastructures". 

At that time, Europa consisted of only a few hundred pages. Although it was originally designed for the G7 ministerial meeting, Europa  expanded rapidly and the Commission decided to turn it into an information resource for everyone, specialising in matters covered by the treaties. A summary of the Commission's ideas on Information Society in 1995 can be found in this Fact Sheet

In the years since, the content of sites like http://www.ispo.cec.be/, the website administered by DG Information Society's  Information Society Promotion Office, and just recently the Cordis (Community Research and Development Information Service) server http://www.cordis.lu were merged into Europa, which now hosts almost all of the content the Commission chooses to publish. 

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