Aligning the planets

8 guiding principles for NASA's portal integration

  • Standardize content, such as header and footer links

  • Create a uniform look and feel across all NASA sites

  • Implement naming conventions that resolve conflicts and ensure that existing URLs have appropriate redirects so as not to break users' bookmarks

  • Evaluate the need for additional hardware and software

  • Ensure scalability

  • Evaluate content to see if it is appropriate for full integration into the portal's content management system

  • Migrate content off existing systems except in extraordinary circumstances

  • Assess the need for additional applications and databases
  • The goal is to keep NASA's sites friendly for visitors but easy to manage for employees, CIO Patricia Dunnington says.

    J. Adam Fenster

    NASA wants all its Web sites to orbit the space agency's portal

    As the sun holds the planets in orbit at different speeds and distances, NASA wants to make its portal the axis for more than 170 disparate Web sites.

    The new NASA Public Web Site Integration Plan sets the principles and standards the space agency will use to weave and link the sites to the central portal at www.NASA.gov.

    The effort will consolidate many of the agency's Web sites and pages through the portal and provide standards for the presentation of all pages, even those that NASA opts not to integrate with the portal. NASA officials want to improve the way the agency maintains its Web presence while also making its online services more productive for Web site visitors.

    'We've been challenged to look across all our functions to identify opportunities to provide better information to the public and create more internal efficiencies,' NASA CIO Pat Dunnington said.

    The integration plan mandates standards for the multiple audiences that NASA serves, including the general public, children, educators, scientists and researchers, its employees and the media. The plan also defines the responsibilities of the portal's Editorial Board, which oversees about 8,500 Web pages.

    Alongside NASA's plan for managing the portal's content is an enterprise architecture that defines six possible levels of integration between any given site and the portal:
    • Full portal integration

    • Parallel integration

    • Partial integration

    • User-interactive application hosting

    • Web development application hosting

    • No integration.

    'Many people think the enterprise architecture is a tool to drive centralization,' Dunnington said. 'That is not the case. It is a tool that allows you to make the right decisions based on business needs.'

    NASA is carrying out the integration project with help from eTouch Systems Corp. of Fremont, Calif. The agency's component organizations are contributing funding to the effort, and personnel and contractors working across the agency will also help with integration projects.

    'If the site owner's resources are available, eTouch's services are at a minimum,' said Nitin Naik, NASA's associate chief technology officer.

    NASA has defined a series of milestones for the portal overhaul. Naik said it is on track to reach one of them, the integration of its field sites, by the end of next month.

    NASA plans to in- tegrate all 170 of its sites by mid-2007.

    The implementation project has a wide-ranging budget. The agency estimates it could spend upwards of $12 million, depending on how much work eTouch or other contractors carry out.

    The integration process involves several steps. It starts with an analysis of a subsite's content and progresses to the transfer of the content from the source to a working area.

    Next, workers create a separate location for the site in the portal's taxonomy and modify the portal's architecture to accommodate the new content.

    After portal specialists define any needed metadata and execute import scripts, they complete the process by creating authoring and presentation templates.

    A chief aim is to do no harm to the current Web programs at the agency. NASA's sites are some of the government's most-visited and popular. So far, throughout the integration planning process, NASA has sustained high Web traffic levels. For example, users downloaded the top-level portal page 22.5 million times between January and last month.

    Teacher-friendly

    Naik said the agency recently finished redesigning the education portion of its site to better serve the needs of teachers. 'They wanted direct access to classroom materials and for us to divide the materials by grade level and subject area,' he said.

    As it overhauls its Web operations, NASA is coordinating its work with the Interagency Committee on Government Information, which this summer presented recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget about policies and guidelines for public Web sites run by the government.

    'My sense is there is probably a growing interest in trying to centralize and consolidate agency portals to make it easier for the public to use our Web sites,' said Candis Harrison, co-chairwoman of the ICGI's Web Content Managers Working Group.

    Naik said that at a recent working group conference he learned that 'a number of agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and portions of the Defense Department, are in the process of evaluating their Web operations and trying to figure out the best way for them to function.'

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