Wednesday, June 27, 2007

7 Ways to Improve a Municipal Water Report to DC Residents

I just received my 2006 DC Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) Quality Report, a glossy, full color, six-page newsletter that I assume appeared in every DC household's postal mail box.

I took some time to really read my copy, instead of my usual action. Let's look at some suggestions to make it more useful:

1. Define for us some terms none of us use in our day-to-day communications. Terms like:

potable (I know what it means, but does everyone?)
free chlorine
Total Coliform

2. List some reasons we would contact you at the phone numbers listed.

3. Provide a few "watershed protection activities" that you suggest we join our neighbors in accomplishing.

4. Explain why WASA "purchases drinking water from the US Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Aqueduct" (page 2) if our "Drinking water...comes from the Potomac River" (page 1.)

5. Advise us whether or not the listed "violations" of EPA Drinking Water Standards constitute a real hazard to the DC population, and how they compare to other regions. The report contains some pretty technical details all written in federal governmentspeak.

6. Lead us through the extensive tables (pages 4 and 5.) I tried to make sense of them, but ended up drowning in data (pun intended.) Do we really need all that information right then and there, or could we make do with just a few facts, and some guidance on how to find more.

7. Explain the photo of two fire fighters spraying water at a burning house. Maybe a caption would help.

I do have a few positive comments, though. The report's layout is effective, with plenty of white space and an easy-to-read typeface. Contact information (phone numbers, offices, email addresses) appears throughout the publication, so I don't have to hunt for it. And picture use is spare but effective (although I'm still puzzling over the fire fighters - do they need potable water to fight fires?)

Overall, I think the writers and editors could learn a thing or two from Made to Stick. While they've clearly and concisely delivered half the information, WASA might find some additional methods of humanizing the document. After all, Water is Life (or so WASA states in the 2005 report.)

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