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Agencies are learning how to use Web tools to interact with constituents<@VM>Sidebar | Five steps to a better Web site<@VM>Sidebar | Government reaches out through the Web

'Anytime you change something that's a really popular service, you get a lot of e-mail.' ' Andrew Novick, Time.gov

WPN Photo by Marc Piscotty

One popular federal Web site these days is organized entirely around a single question: What time is it?

Time.gov has been answering this question down to the nanosecond for millions of Web visitors since June 1999. The site is provided by the nation's two official timekeeping agencies, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and its military counterpart, the Naval Observatory.

The primary feature of Time.gov is a map of the United States that shows the time zones in a soothing palette of teal, blue and purple. Roll a mouse over a zone and click, and the site reveals the time there.

And a popular service it is. On a normal day, Time.gov receives between 300,000 and 400,000 hits. On the Sunday that the time rolls over to Daylight Saving Time, the number of hits increases by seven or eight times. 'It's a big day for people to change their clocks,' said Andrew Novick, an engineer with NIST's Time and Frequency Division who maintains the Time.gov Web site. Whenever there's a time rollover, the site gets really hammered, Novick said. 'We have to shut off some things and share space with NIST in Gaithersburg, Md., for computing power.'

In many ways, Time.gov represents the next step in government agency Web development. Think back to the Web's Pleistocene epoch, around 2001 or so, when government Web sites were basically monologic. Using static Web pages, the sites dished out a lot of words and data. Oh, they might have a revolving mailbox icon so users could send e-mail. But the sites were mostly there to educate and instruct in a half-duplex mode, as sort of electronic brochures. It was by no means a two-way dialogue.

Now all that's changing as government agencies are starting to use the virtual media to develop real and creative relationships with users.

Changes afoot

Sites as focused as Time.gov are still a rarity in government. Agencies have yet to harness the 2-D nature of electronic media, said Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. One of the goals of democracy is to make government a two-way process, and the Web offers a way to do this, he said.

Too often, federal Web sites don't take advantage of the interactive power of social networking on the Web. Admittedly, there are risks, such as the possibility of malicious postings and hackings. These are legitimate fears, Shneiderman said. 'But these should not deter the federal government from making use of this most remarkable media. The opportunities for people to contribute to government are enormous,' he added.

Shneiderman sees the collaborative input of the Many Eyes Web site (GCN.com/824) developed by the IBM Watson Research Center's Collaborative User Experience research group in Cambridge, Mass., as a development the government could emulate.

At Many Eyes, contributors transform dry data into colorful graphics called visualizations and post them. For example, one contributor submitted a graphic that uses data from the Transportation Department's Federal Highway Administration to show states that have the largest concentration of structurally deficient bridges. The deeper a state's hue, the more structurally deficient bridges it has.

Also on the site is a bubble graph that shows Titanic survivors by gender and the class of their accommodations. The viewer can see quickly that most of the people who drowned were men and were either crew members or third-class passengers.

Describing his life goal as being 'to turn numbers into pictures,' Martin Wattenberg, group manager and researcher with Many Eyes site developer IBM's Visual Communication Lab, is appreciative of the 'fantastic job' the government does of making important, copyright-free statistics available. Visitors to Many Eyes have uploaded more than 5,000 datasets and created more than 4,000 visualizations since Jan. 23, when the site became available to the public.

This interactive use of the Web is 'in the great tradition of American town hall meetings, letters to the editor and public discussions,' Shneiderman said. 'The Internet is succeeding at this transformative role of revitalizing democracy.'

The Web's effect on government cannot be overstated, Shneiderman said. 'It's really amazing. There are these wonderful government resources. The Library of Congress has the handwritten letters of George Washington and the notebooks of Walt Whitman on the Web. It used to be only a few dozen scholars could see them. Now every high school kid on the planet can look at them.'

Wattenberg also would like to see government embrace visualization on a large scale. He'd like to see government offer more data in machine-readable form. 'Too often, numbers are imprisoned in print-focused formats like PDF, so they can't be easily analyzed, transformed or combined with other information,' Wattenberg said.
With the Web, expectations of government service have changed, said Thom Haller, founder of consulting firm Info.Design. 'We go online because we want answers.'

Haller said he doesn't spend afternoons in his comfy chair, muttering to himself, 'I love to read about government grants so I'll go online and enjoy lots of words.' Instead he'll say to himself, 'I want a grant. What do I need to do to get one? How can I accomplish what I want to accomplish? And how can government support me?'

In the lead

Federal Web sites that actively respond to their constituents are taking the lead, Haller said. He cites www.cancer.gov, the Web site of the National Cancer Institute, as one of the best. The site lets users find answers to specific kinds of cancer, treatment options, testing and clinical trials, all written in plain language. The focus is on the users and what they need to know, not on the organizational hierarchy of the National Cancer Institute.

Time.gov is just one example of government's attempt to keep it simple. NIST is planning some big changes to the site, Novick said. Such changes will be a long time in coming. The site hasn't changed much since 1999. 'Anytime you change something that's a really popular service, you get a lot of e-mail,' Novick said. 'People will write in to say, 'You changed that color that I really liked.' '

A much more detailed map is on the way, with states labeled by name. 'I get a lot of e-mail from schools and teachers who say that because the states aren't labeled, they can't use it.' NIST will also add international time maps to the site. 'Most people who live in California know what time it is in New York but have no idea what time it is in England,' Novick said.

The site will use Adobe Flash, which uses Port 80, the port that HTML pages come through. 'You won't have so many problems with firewalls,' Novick said.
NIST employees used several tools to build the site, include Java Applets, JavaScript, Perl and CGI. 'Sometimes Windows and Java don't get along,' he said. 'I try to make it clear how to use it.'

Other agencies are finding ways to reduce the volume of content on their sites so the public receives more 'signal' and less 'noise' that is redundant, outdated and trivial, said Sanjay Koyani, director of Web communications at the Food and Drug Administration and one of the authors of Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines.

Koyani gives much of the credit for this progress to the federal government's Web Managers Advisory Council. The group (www.webcontent.gov), composed of about 40 Web managers in government, is a think tank that spearheads new Web communication approaches, content management techniques and shares lessons learned.

Sgt. Star

One of the most compelling examples of this new method is an interactive Web site the Army is using to achieve one of its most important missions: recruitment.
Sgt. Star (which stands for the Army values of Strong, Trained and Ready) is ready to answer questions about Army life at www.goarmy.com (GCN.com/825).

Clicking on a link on the right-hand side of the page, 'Ask SGT STAR,' takes the visitor directly to an interactive session with the virtual man himself.

When Sgt. Star debuted in August 2006, a typical user's session lasted about four minutes, said Jeff Brown, senior vice president of sales for Next IT, the company that designed software based on artificial intelligence technology that powers Sgt. Star. The AI core engine lets Next IT developers understand what questions users want answered.

At first the Army wondered if Sgt. Star was just a fad and interest would eventually wane, Brown said. But in the past year, the average user session time there has increased to 17 1/2 minutes.

This 'stickiness' of a site is the new way that Next IT is looking at Web site engagement.

'Traditionally, popularity measures outside of Google rankings were how many page hits you got,' said Patrick Ream, vice president of marketing at Next IT. But now the company is measuring how long a user stays on a site.

Brown said they use the best answers from real recruiters to the sort of questions 17-year-olds ask typically ask, such as, 'Do I get my own shower in basic training?' (Answer: No. The sergeant then goes into detail about the showering facilities soldiers must endure in basic training.)

The Army consulted an ad agency, McCann-Erickson, which suggested that Sgt. Star needed to develop more of a personality and establish a trust relationship with the visitors, albeit virtually.

So the Army gave Sgt. Star a back story. When a visitor, impressed with Sgt. Star's rugged good looks, jaunty beret and resonant voice asks, 'Do you have a girlfriend?' the reply comes back immediately, 'I am married. Mrs. Star is my boss.'

With an ordinary Web site, a user could type in 'housing' and get a list of 200 documents in Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF formats, Ream said. With Sgt. Star, a visitor types in 'housing,' and Sgt. Star asks, 'What kind of housing are you interested in?' Through online chatting, the visitor and the virtual sergeant engage in conversation that emulates human interaction.

Ream noted that government Web sites 'have an incredible abundance of great content, and they've done a good job of making that content available.'
It's just that finding the needle in the haystack is sometimes troublesome, Brown said.

The GoArmy.com site, for example, has 15,000 pages of content, said Paula Spilman, IT project manager for information support activity at the U.S. Army Accessions Command. 'That much information could be overwhelming,' she said. Because he's part search engine, part drill sergeant and part guidance counselor, Sgt. Star is a way to help users sift through that information.

Sgt. Star is not designed to replace recruiters, Spilman said. But if a young person is not ready to make that commitment of walking down the street to the Army recruitment office, this is a way for him or her to get information. 'It's sort of like a new-car-buying mentality,' she said. 'You go online and find out as much as you can then go into the showroom armed with knowledge.'
1. Get user feedback. Paula Spilman, information technology project manager for the Army Accessions Command and the Army's virtual recruiting tool, Sgt. Star, advises feds who are looking to build a better Web site to 'talk to the users, all of the users. In our case, it will be educators, recruiters, parents and the kids themselves. Make sure you get something from everyone and have something for everyone on the site.' For example, Sgt. Star holds more appeal for people ages 17 to 24 than for older users. Parents and educators aren't as interested in him, so the GoArmy.com site retained the traditional methods of Web navigation.

2. Don't change your site all the time. 'If you have a government Web site that is highly used, your regular users are probably going to be disappointed,' said Andrew Novick, the National Institute of Standards and Technology engineer who maintains the Time.gov Web site.

3. Answer all your e-mails. 'We're government, we're civil servants,' Novick said. 'We should help people wherever we can.'

4. Define and document your Web site's audience, as well as user goals, top tasks, the agency's top needs, and the site's required features and functionality. Do all this before touching any design work, said Sanjay Koyani, director of Web communications at the Food and Drug Administration.

5. Provide strong content that is easy to read, scan and print. 'Content is king,' Koyani said. 'It's why people come to our site. We must continually employ good-writing-for-the-Web principles so that the public can easily scan our information and understand how it will help them do something or get informed for a better quality of life.'

' Trudy Walsh
Two government Web sites ' one federal, one state ' are finding new ways to give users more of what they want from government: targeted information and quick service.

The Housing and Urban Development Department's Enterprise Income Verification System helps 4,100 public housing agencies validate tenant-reported income, including wages, unemployment and Social Security benefits. Public housing relies on accurate reporting of tenants' income. Underreporting household income can keep a family that truly needs housing assistance out of the system.

EIV is built right into the HUD.gov Web site, said Nicole Faison, director of HUD's Office of Public Housing Programs. While visitors to HUD.gov are on the site, they can also fill out their EIV applications, Faison said.

'The big thing feds do well is getting information out to those who need it,' Faison said. 'We're here to serve our constituents, our customers. Granted, there may be customers who don't know we exist, but we're there for those who we know need it.'

EIV accesses and integrates data from other federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration and the Health and Human Services Department.

Some of the data that EIV culls comes from large systems that data back to the 1970s, said Tomas Vagoun, program manager of the federal civilian and intelligence division of ITS, a subsidiary of QinetiQ North America.

When Faison and her team first put up the Web site (GCN.com/826), they weren't sure what information to include. 'We ended up relying on information coming through our help desk,' she said. 'So we were able to provide information that was most useful and didn't overwhelm the Web pages with information that wasn't helpful to the majority of the folks.'

Web 2.0 is an overused term, Vagoun said. But one of the valuable concepts that has come out of it is the goal of engaging the user in a dialogue.

Meanwhile, features of Web 2.0 were a key ingredient in remodeling the Pennsylvania attorney general's Web site, www.attorneygeneral. gov, in September 2005.

Using CMS400.Net, a Web content management tool from Ektron, the office added blogging, more graphics, a news section and functions that users can tailor to their needs.

For example, parents can sign up to find out when a child predator is caught, said Dennis Guzy Jr., business integration group manager with the Pennsylvania attorney general's office. The site sends out an e-mail notification instantly.

The office has tweaked the site based on feedback from constituents, Guzy said. The revamped site is now ranked No. 2 in Google when users type 'attorney general.'

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