FirstGov handles millions of Web hits after attacks

FirstGov handles millions of Web hits after attacks

Like a seismograph needle during an earthquake, the activity on FirstGov, the General Services Administration's portal to government Web sites, posted a sharp spike during last month's terrorist attacks.

As FirstGov staff members scrambled to gather as many accurate disaster-related phone numbers and links as they could, commercial portal sites brought visitors in record numbers to the GSA's 'U.S. Government Responds to September 11' page.

The aftermath of the attacks has given FirstGov the chance 'to demonstrate the value and the critical importance that the federal government can play in providing time-sensitive, complete, official information to the citizen,' said Deborah Diaz, deputy associate administrator for FirstGov in GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

As the nation's summer vacation time ended on Labor Day, FirstGov was already getting a slight increase in traffic, with 1.12 million hits and 144,370 unique visitors during the first full week of September.

Although its statistics were dwarfed by traffic flooding sites of national news outlets, during the week of Sept. 9 to Sept. 15, the number of page hits on www.firstgov.gov reached 1.75 million, and unique visitors more than tripled, to 448,552.

Portal searches

The most active day on the site was Thursday, Sept. 13, when the attacks were still fresh news and family members from all over the nation and the world were tracking down loved ones who had worked in lower Manhattan or at the Pentagon.

Apparently people were looking for information fast, then moving on. The average visitor spent 2 minutes and 3 seconds on the FirstGov Site between Sept. 9 and 15, down 29 seconds from the previous week.

The first full week after the terrorist strikes, Sept. 16 to Sept. 22, saw FirstGov receive some 1.8 million page hits from 347,977 unique visitors. The most traffic was recorded on Monday, Sept. 17.

The top draw for those visitors was the link to 'U.S. Government Responds to September 11,' which has been featured prominently in red at the top of all pages within the site. The response page began evolving in the first hours after the disaster.

When the GSA building in Washington was evacuated following the Pentagon hit, FirstGov staff members started working at home to collect Web sites and phone numbers, Diaz said. They also asked for numbers of telecommunications devices for the deaf.

The first version of the response page went live on Sept. 12.

Because GSA 'did not want to create an infrastructure problem during this time of crisis,' staff members called all the phone numbers and checked the Web sites for appropriateness and traffic handling capability before posting the numbers and URLs, Diaz said.

Because of the broad nature of the Sept. 11 tragedy, FirstGov officials took steps to publicize their response page beyond the dot-gov world.

The staff posted notices about the FirstGov response page on several electronic mailing lists for state and local officials and librarians. That way, reference librarians across the country could point visitors to it as a source of information, Diaz said.

Diaz said she was able to get links to the response page posted on America Online, Yahoo, Microsoft Network (MSN), MSNBC and other portal sites. For the week of Sept. 9 to Sept. 15, MSN referred more visitors to FirstGov than any other Web site.

'We were just so happy to have the private sector really play the role that they needed to play,' Diaz said.

Where to find info

Until Sept. 26, 15 days after the attacks, the top of the response page featured 'Finding People' as a primary category of information.

Links under 'Finding People' included contact phone numbers for the airlines whose planes were hijacked, the New York mayor's hotline for reporting missing persons, a Web-based patient locator for New York-area hospitals, and phone numbers for the major public- and private-sector employers hit by the terrorists.

Two and three days after the attacks, Diaz said, she received several e-mails from people who said that, though they lived far from New York and the Pentagon, they successfully tracked down their surviving family members through the listed links.

Although the overall numbers of page hits and visitors swelled after Sept. 11, the porttion of site visits from within the United States was constant at 68.4 percent, GSA said. Known international visits increased slightly to 6.9 percent Sept. 9 to 16, from 5.1 percent the previous week.

After Sept. 26, when New York officials were saying that finding survivors was a near-impossibility, the response page shifted its focus to benefits and assistance.

'The people looking for information were not experts in the government's plumbing,' said G. Martin Wagner, associate administrator of the Governmentwide Policy Office.

Several FirstGov staff members worked 12-hour days over the first weekend after the disaster, Diaz said. As the list of contacts grew, the staff broke up the response page into multiple categories and pages.

Wagner said he didn't prompt the FirstGov staff to do any of the extra work. On Sept. 11, Wagner was in Canberra, Australia, discussing e-government issues with his counterparts there, and it took him the better part of a week to get home.

'I was stranded far away, and they did this on their own,' Wagner said.

A lot of sites

Early on, the FirstGov team decided to refresh its Web site contents every 12 hours, instead of once every two weeks.

Normally it takes four days to spider through 47 million federal Web sites, and that's why FirstGov updates its content fortnightly, Diaz said. In the fast-moving days after Sept. 11, the staff conducted 12-hour searches on select government agencies to keep up with news and events.

FirstGov has always had a feedback section, offering separate forms for responses by topic, agency and state. The new response page provides links for sending messages to the FirstGov staff, terrorism leads to the FBI, comments on rescues to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and remarks on traveling to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The site got everything from sympathy notes to threats, tips and messages for President Bush. 'People just had confidence to send a letter off to the president through us,' Diaz said.

Popular topics among FirstGov visitors were the attack, the 'search government' page, the executive branch and feedback.

For more statistics on FirstGov during the disaster, visit www.gcn.com and click on 'GCN in print' in the left column for this issue.

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