Great dot-gov Web Sites 2009

Anyone who doubts the central role that the Web has taken in government life should consider all the attention paid to Recovery.gov. The General Services Administration created the site earlier this year to show the public how federal economic stimulus money was being disbursed. But the first iteration of the site proved to be too inscrutable for the public. So the agency contracted with a company to redesign the site — to the tune of $18 million over the next five years.

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The days of a Web presence being an optional component for agencies are long gone. For most citizens, the primary way of interacting with their government is through Web sites. By and large, agencies have responded to that demand by creating richer, more interactive sites.

A lot has changed since Government Computer News created its first list of 10 great government Web sites last year. For one thing, social networking has moved into the mainstream, and to maintain a presence in the communities they serve, the smartest agencies have established footholds on Twitter, Facebook and other such sites.

"Agencies are starting to see that government needs to be part of this larger information ecosystem," said Sheila Campbell, co-chairwoman of the Federal Web Managers Council. "Managing the Web isn't just managing the Web site. It means putting the content out where people are on the Web."

Second and perhaps most important, the Obama administration has made government transparency an agenda item and wants agency Web sites to be crucial elements in achieving that goal. "We're just in the beginning stages of laying a new foundation around transparency, [the results of which] allow the American people to create innovative solutions to some of the toughest problems we face in this country," said federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra.

What follows is a compendium of 10 government Web sites that are meeting and exceeding those goals. This is not a definitive list of the 10 best government sites. The field is way too broad for any such superlatives. But they are sites that embrace the Web's full potential, and they can offer ideas for other agencies seeking to improve their own sites.

(Disclaimer: Use of any products does not imply the endorsement on the part of the agency).

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Data.Gov sets the tone for transparent government
SITE: Data.Gov | USASpending.gov
AGENCY: Office of Management and Budget/General Services Administration
  • LAMP stack (Linux, Apache HTTP server, MySQL, and PHP).
  • Adobe Flex and Microsoft Silverlight visualization software.
  • The Drupal Content Management System.
  • Google Motion Chart (free, publicly available Web service).
  • Really Simple Syndication (RSS).
  • Google keyhole Markup Language (KML).

To the casual viewer, the Office of Management and Budget's Data.gov might not be the most exciting virtual destination. The site's modesty however, belies a fundamental shift in how government interacts with the Web.

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"We need to rethink how we serve the American people. We have to think about it in terms of an ecosystem,” said federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra. “We can't think of people as subjects, but rather co-creators of our democratic system."

When Barack Obama was elected the 44th president, he called for more transparency with government agencies. Data.gov, put in place by the then newly-appointed Kundra, showed how agencies could put this transparency into practice. The site contains links to data feeds from a variety of government sources. The idea is that by agencies making feeds of their databases available, nongovernmental agencies and citizens can reuse them in their own applications and Web sites.

"We recognize that we don't have a monopoly on the best ideas, but we want to tap into the ingenuity of the American people," Kundra said.

The site now features more than 109,000 data feeds, available as Really Simple Syndication feeds, common-separated values or coordinated data that can be placed on maps. The Environmental Protection Agency has released toxicology reports. The Census Bureau has made available its housing population reports. And other individuals are already reusing these feeds. For instance, one individual used the U.S. flight data compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration for a Web service that can show the historic on-time percentage of specific airline routes.

Making data available is only one part of this revolution, however. Nongovernmental organizations and individuals could do only some of the work of making sense of the data; agencies themselves need to endeavor to make their data more understandable and interactive.

OMB also launched USASpending.gov, a Web-based compendium that presents where the government contractual dollars go to budget dollars in an easy-to-digest fashion. The site has already gotten 31 million visitors — a testament to the hunger people have for government data.

One of the site’s chief features is the IT Dashboard, which displays the government's entire IT portfolio. The page shows bar charts that compare how much each agency is spending on IT. It also includes a blog by Kundra discussing trends in this arena.

All this Web-based transparency portends change in how government operates. For instance, earlier this month the Veterans Affairs Department put a hold on 45 IT projects worth approximately $200 million, a move that was sparked in part by digging into the books in order to provide information for the IT Dashboard.

data.gov home page

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Forge.mil brings net-centric speed to software development

Defense Information Systems Agency
  • CollabNet TeamForge collaboration platform
  • Subversion version control
  • VMware virtualization software
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux
  • JBoss and Tomcat application server software
  • Apache Web server software
  • PostgreSQL

Web sites can not only help citizens better understand government information, they can also help government personnel do their jobs better.

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Over the past few years, the Defense Department has increasingly relied on online communications to speed its response time and increase its agility, an approach that has been termed network-centric warfare. The Defense Information Systems Agency's Forge.mil intranet site brings that speed and connectivity to the field of software development.

Forge.mil logo

"We've focused on providing a net-centric operational development, but we haven't given the developers the tools [before now] to effectively build out and rapidly deploy net-centric systems," said Rob Vietmeyer, Forge.mil's project director.

The idea behind Forge.mil is to provide an online meeting place for military agencies to build software in a collaborative fashion. By offering this environment as a network-based service, DISA eliminates the need for the developers to set up their own environments, which, especially if the participants are geographically dispersed, can be a complicated endeavor.

The site is accessible by DOD personnel and supporting contractors. Recently, a second version of was stood up for classified projects to run on the Secret IP Router Network. About 2,200 personnel have accessed the site, and about 500 individuals contribute to the development of new software.

The site hosts about 93 projects, with about four new ones coming on board each week. New projects include the National Senior Leader Decision Support System, a portal to provide a common shared picture for senior Defense officials, and an extension for the Firefox browser to provide Common Access Card log-on capability.

As an open repository, Forge.mil could cut down on duplication of effort, as services could check to see if a component has already been developed elsewhere before commissioning it anew, Vietmeyer said. The services could focus on developing components, rather than entire systems. Each component could be fielded at its own pace, without holding up progress of any given system as a whole.

The repository could also hold software code that was developed for the government and could be reused by government according to the original licensing agreement. A lot of software is available for reuse, but tends not to be used because agencies do not know it is available.

Forge.mil actually comprises a number of elements, each dealing with some aspect of the development process. "We're trying to build out a piece at a time," Vietmeyer said. SoftwareForge is the repository for public projects. ProjectForge will hold the application life cycle management tools, such as version control and bug-tracking, which can be used a service by other services for a fee. CertificationForge will provide a workflow process for certifying applications in Common Criteria or other government certification programs. TestForge will provide an on-demand testing environment for trying out new applications, and StandardsForge will provide a central meeting place for different service efforts to interact with standards bodies.

Eventually, Forge.mil will offer developers the capabilities of running their test builds on DISA's Rapid Access Computing Environment. This, in effect, offers an entire cloud-based development and testing environment for military developers.

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Transit511 combines public transportation systems in the Bay Area

Transit 511
California Metropolitan Transportation Commission
  • MDV trip-planning software
  • Oracle database for schedules
  • ArcGIS from ESRI for other maps
  • JavaScript

Challenge: How do you get from one location in the San Francisco area to another using only public transportation? Keep in mind that the Bay Area is home to more than 60 public transportation options, from the city's subway to county bus lines.

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The California Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Transit.511.org provides a one-stop shop that can help users plan a route from doorstep to doorstep. Although a number of cities offer Web-based trip planners, San Francisco's combines the schedules of dozens of subway, light-rail, trolley and bus systems, a heroic act of interagency coordination. A trip can involve transferring between two or three systems. It is to the designers' credit — and to the credit of supporting contractor Science Applications International Corp. — that the site offers users a uniform interface.

"We tried to consolidate the information together in one place as much as possible," said Tom Spiekerman, Transit.511.org’s project manager. The in-house staff consisted of four people.

Users have praised the site. "It's awesome," one San Francisco resident told us. In fact, the site won a Best New Innovative Product award from the Intelligent Transportation Society of America in 2008.

A user gives the trip planner a starting address and an ending address, and the site produces a map of the journey and offers a variety of options. Users can zoom and pan across the map and print itineraries. The site offers the option of simply finding out what public transportation is available near a location and posts schedules for all the transit systems, a live guide to traffic congestion, some information on delays and ride-sharing opportunities. A “popular destinations” option offers a map of tourist attractions with information on nearby transit stops.

To bring all those transit schedules together on one site, the development team had to work with the formats the individual transit systems used to publish their schedules. "We did not dictate to them a particular format for the data,” Spiekerman said. “We figured a lot of them did not have the budget or the expertise, so we worked with whatever they had and created a centralized database."

The agency uses trip-planning software from European company MDV, which largely focuses on providing software for European cities.

The designers also incorporated the ability for other organizations to embed a trip planner into their sites. For example, the San Francisco Opera uses a copy of the trip planner to help opera-goers find their way to performances, and the Transit and Trails Web site offers users a guide to local hiking destinations.

sample bus route map from transit 511

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State puts social networking to diplomatic use

State Department
State Department
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Flickr
  • Twitter
  • Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds
  • Flash

Want to know where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is right now? A section of the State Department’s Web site has details about where she is in the world (not surprisingly, she's often out of the country), where she has been recently and where she's off to next — all highlighted on a Google map for easy viewing. At the time of this writing, she was traveling in India and Thailand, having just gotten back from Canada, Egypt and Iraq.

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Her travel itinerary is only one of a number of multimedia features on the department’s home page. It has an active feel, with videos, maps and news releases detailing officials’ latest work. And those diplomatic professionals certainly have caught on to how to build good relationships in the era of Web 2.0: The agency's Web management team understands that it is not enough to keep up your own Web site, you must also maintain a presence on a wide range of social-networking sites.

Among the public services that State uses are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube for video and Flickr for photos. The department also publishes a blog of daily events, called DipNote. Using all those tools helps the agency get the word out about its activities.

"State has been doing a good job of exploring social media," said Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results, the organization that compiles the quarterly American Customer Satisfaction Index. That ongoing opt-in survey quizzes users about how satisfied they are with the sites they visit. State routinely tests near the top of the heap of government Web sites.

State’s use of social media is not focused on employee self-expression but rather on publicizing the Web site’s resources. "They really use it as distribution outreach so people can more easily get the information they are interested in," Freed said.

Of course, by posting material on a Web service outside its management, such as YouTube or Twitter, the agency loses control of how State-generated material is used. But the additional exposure is worth the price.

"At the end of the day, they will touch more people with the information on their Web site through social media," Freed said.

sample State Department map showing Clinton trips

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FDsys makes America's documents current and permanent

Federal Digital System
Government Printing Office
  • EMC Documentum content management system
  • Microsoft Fast Search and Transfer search engine
  • Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System
  • Digital signatures

For the past 196 years, the Government Printing Office has performed the function its name suggests, acting as the print shop for the federal government. As documents are increasingly rendered in electronic form, GPO has kept pace by offering electronic versions of official documents. The Federal Digital System (FDsys), the first iteration of which went live earlier this year, offers the public access to documents from all three branches of government through a single portal. It is a Web site of sweeping scope.

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"We serve a very broad market. We serve the general public, the library community, the research community,” Public Printer Robert Tapella said. “Each of those segments has different views of what is the right way for the system to support their needs."

Before creating FDsys, GPO conducted extensive focus-group studies to determine what users needed in terms of functionality. Officials also consulted usability experts to help design an effective interface, Tapella said, and then tested proposed interfaces with more focus groups.

FDsys hosts all the documents agencies and Congress send to GPO for printing and distribution. It will also permanently archive noteworthy documents that agencies post on their own Web sites and important historical documents. FDsys now posts congressional bills, documents and hearing testimonies; documents from the Federal Register; and bills and laws enacted since the 104th Congress.

Agencies and Congress can submit official electronic files to FDsys with digital certificates, which allow GPO to maintain a chain of custody that can be traced back to the documents’ originators. GPO will maintain that chain of custody so later users will be assured that the document hasn't been altered or corrupted in any way, said Mike Wash, GPO’s chief information officer.

For users, FDsys’ search capability is more nuanced than its predecessor, GPO Access. For instance, visitors can search by congressional committee or member of Congress and refine the results by keyword and date. New features and services will be added in the next few years.

The site also offers a daily online publication covering the president's orders, statements and remarks — the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents. Contributed by the Office of the Federal Register, it uses material from the White House Press Office.

Furthermore, the system addresses long-term archiving issues, with particular attention paid to document formats. It uses the International Organization for Standardization’s Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System, which establishes a procedure for moving documents to next-generation formats. Each document will have an archival information package with instructions on preparing the material for a new format.

"As formats change and tools change in the future, the information is in a form that it can be repurposed for future needs," Wash said.

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Utah takes its site to higher ground

State of Utah
  • Adobe Flash
  • Google analytics
  • Google Maps
  • Sprout social widget tool

For a state's banner Web site, Utah.gov has pulled off what is perhaps the most amazing trick of all: not looking like a state-run Web site. Most state sites tend to be basic boxy-affairs, offering a smattering of written content, perhaps a link to the weather and not much flash. The newly redesigned official Web site for Utah, in contrast, is aesthetically pleasing and daring all at once. And don't be fooled by the eye candy: It also has an incredible amount of information and services for the citizen, and helps the state government do its job better.

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"The best part is that Utah.gov isn't just innovative and sexy, but also well-organized and easy to use," said Coby Logen, who runs the DotGovWatch commentary site.

David Fletcher, the state’s chief technology officer, said the Web management team spent more than the usual amount of time designing the site. "We took into account more tools, and we did get started a little earlier on the design than what we usually [do]. We wanted something that would be useful for our citizens as well as portray a good image of the state."

A moving banner of easy-to-understand icons rolls across the home page, providing links to resources such as travel information, job information, traffic updates, public meetings and other topics. Rolling the mouse over an icon brings up a written explanation of the item. On the background, an ever-changing slideshow displays the most picturesque aspects of the state. And despite the complexity of the site, it loads and changes quickly.

The organizers have taken heavily to Web 2.0 tools: The site features 27 blogs, over 100 Twitter accounts and scads of videos — all designed to appeal to users. "One of things we want to do is reach out to as many citizens as possible, and there is a lot of competition for their attention," Fletcher said.

Like many state Web sites, it breaks its content up for different audiences — residents, businesses, visitors and other categories. The state itself has more than 860 services, and the site provides links to additional federal services. A single-stop service for registering a new business, for example, eliminates the need for applicants to visit multiple agencies — either online or in person — to get a business license. Thus far, it has served more than 100,000 applicants.

A service like this does more than look good. "We want to facilitate the creation of new businesses and I think [the one-stop business registration service] has helped us in terms of our economy," Fletcher said.

utah website home page

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Science.gov breaks down stovepipes of research

Office of Scientific and Technical Information, Energy Department
  • Deep Web Technologies' DeepRank for searching
  • RSS
  • Wikipedia

One of the rules of thumb for presenting information to the public is to make it accessible by subject matter rather than by the office or agency that generated the information. For example, if you were looking for research data on land use nationwide, would you go to the Web site of the Interior Department or the U.S. Geological Survey?

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Now, with Science.gov, you don't have to worry about which agency published the research. Led by the Energy Department's Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI), the site offers a one-stop shop for searching U.S. scientific databases. At last count, you could do a single search of 38 data sources — or about 200 million documents.

In 2001, when they set out to establish a digital scientific library, DOE officials quickly realized that theirs wasn’t the only agency doing scientific research and that citizens would benefit from a cross-agency compilation of resources.

The resulting site represents a considerable coordination effort among numerous federal agencies. Besides OSTI, members of the Science.gov Alliance include the Agriculture and Interior departments, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the National Science Foundation.

To add to the complexity of creating such a site, searching scientific papers is far different from a typical Web search, the results of which can be refined by the study of hyperlinks. With research papers, there are no links to refer to.

Such search functions can be even more problematic when you’re cataloging the contents of multiple databases, a practice known as federated search. Science.gov proved to be one of the early examples of how federated search could be done. For that project, OSTI used search software from Deep Web Technologies that can catalog information from different repositories.

"We like to call the audience the science-attendant citizen,” said Sharon Jordan, OSTI’s assistant director for program integration. “We recognize that while it is of great use to scientists, there are also citizens in the public sector, as well as students and teachers, who need to know the source for authentic science information. We try to serve them all."

Over the years, Science.gov has added features to make it easier to sort through data. On the left hand of the results pages, the returns are broken down into topic clusters. The software automatically ranks the results according to relevancy. And if you don't find what you are looking for, you can create an alert that will send you an e-mail message or populate an RSS feed when new research is indexed that matches your criteria. A search on a particular term could also include a link to Wikipedia for a general explanation.

"For people who really want not just the results but the definition or longer explanation of the topic, they can find that through that box," said Valerie Allen, OSTI’s product manager for Science.gov.

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USPS extends its virtual post office

U.S. Postal Service
www.usps.gov | www.prioritymail.com
Postal Service
  • Adobe Flash
  • Cascading Style sheets
  • Adobe Acrobat

Ultimately, an agency's Web site should do more than just provide some basic information about that agency and its mission. It can actually execute some of the work of the agency itself — especially in cases when doing so makes life easier for users. The Postal Service Web sites are models for this approach

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About 80 percent of everything you can do by taking a trip to the post office you can also do online, said Postal Service spokesperson Michael Woods. The agency makes surprising use of cutting-edge technologies but ruggedizes them so they can be used by thousands or even millions of customers a day, and integrates them seamlessly with back-end systems.

On the postal service site, you can do things such as print shipping labels, schedule package pickups, buy stamps, order shipping supplies, change your address, and hold or redirect your mail. You can also rent a post office box or use a rate calculator. The site also is a repository for all the regulations on mailing.

The site is one of the most frequently visited government Web sites. It got more than 438 million visitors in 2008 and enjoys about 1.2 million visitors a day. The Brookings Institute rated the site as one of the top five e-government sites for 2008.

The Postal Service keeps up with the latest technology. It is one of the first agencies top use augmented reality technology. On the Prioritymail.com site, users can launch a Web application, called the Virtual Box Simulator, that helps them pick the correct size box for their package. They hold the package in front of their Web camera, and the software will place the object inside a simulated three-dimensional box. The simulator tool, which was launched in May, has already been used more than 47,000 times.

USPS box sizing webcam application

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HHS delivers health info users can trust 

Women's Health / Girl's Health
www.womenshealth.gov | www.girlshealth.gov
Health and Human Services Department

Government agencies might not have the hip credentials of some privately run Web sites, but they do have one factor on their side: authority. In the health field, many agencies have taken the lead in offering safe, sane medical advice and information.

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Great dot-gov Web sites

One great example of government trust in action is the WomensHealth.gov site, run by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office on Women's Health. In plain, easy-to-understand language, the site addresses more than 800 topics related to women's health, such as fitness, nutrition, breastfeeding, pregnancy and reproductive health.

And the outreach doesn't stop at the electronic page: The service can also be accessed via a toll-free call center (800-994-9662) in both English and Spanish.

The office has developed an offshoot of the site for girls ages 10 to 16 and their parents. GirlsHealth.gov focuses on common issues for that age group, such as fitness, bone health and nutrition, bullying, and relationships.

sample image from girlshealth site

The value of WomensHealth.gov has not gone unnoticed. It has won the Grace Murray Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery and the Aesculapius Award from the Health Improvement Institute. It also scores well on the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index.

"Not only does [WomensHealth.gov] have great content, but it’s great content with the government seal of approval,” said Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results, the organization that compiles the results of the quarterly ACSI survey. “Any individual can put up a Web site, and it can look professional and official. But when it has a government seal of approval, it helps a lot with the credibility of information.”

Freed also praised HHS for fostering a community of users and conducting campaigns to draw more users in. "It really is about providing information and helping people change their behavior to a more healthy approach,” he said. “They really met a need."

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The Web site on building better Web sites

Federal Web Managers Council/General Services Administration

Anyone taking on agency Web management might find it a daunting career path: Managers worry about the latest Web standards, as well as the policies, regulations and best practices of the government itself. The good news is that the Federal Web Managers Council provides a site with most of the information Web managers need to keep abreast with. The council's work, as well as the material on WebContent.gov site, has helped immeasurably in bringing a sense of uniformity and quiet sophistication to federal Web sites.

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The site was launched in 2004, as an outcome of an interagency committee on government information. Office of Management and Budget officials asked the the Federal Web Managers Council (then called the Web Content Standards Working Group) to develop recommendations for policies for Web sites. The council came up with a set of best practices for good Web design, as well as implementation strategies for existing federal requirements.

"What was exciting about the site when it was first launched was that there never was before a central place to go to see all the federal laws and regulations that applied to federal Web sites," said Sheila Campbell, a co-chair of the council and the General Services Administration’s manager of USA.gov Web best practices team. It covered a disparate range of policies and regulations: Section 508, Freedom of Information Act, E-Government Act of 2002 and Government Paperwork Reduction Act. In addition to these must-knows, the site also includes advice on Web site usability, how to work with new media such as Twitter and Facebook, and how to render your site's content in other languages.

In addition to the learning material, it also includes links to help Web managers stay in the loop with their communities. It hosts an online forum for members to trade ideas, as well as links to GSA’s Web Manager University, which offers classes on all aspects of Web site management.

A big part of the site's success can be attributed to a large amount of community involvement, noted Natalie Davidson, the content manager for WebContent.gov. More than 1,500 federal, state and local Web managers, who have signed on to the council's mailing list, contribute to the site. "It's like the wisdom of the masses have coming together to discuss lessons learned and challenges, and help evolve the quality of government Web sites," she said.

"Everyone will have a voice and a chance to participate and bring their expertise to the forum as a whole," Davidson said.


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