Furlough or no, watch for stale Web page information

While many employees waited at home for resolution of the budget stalemate and then
removal of Washington's snow last month, their agencies' home pages provided the public
with valuable information and services.


But as funding and technological support start to decline, you and your customers need
to beware of Web pages that have become stale.


During the furloughs, some pundits have warned federal employees not to volunteer, even
at home. The argument was that the smoother things went, the less pain and inconvenience
the public would experience as the politicos wrangled. In other words, if functions
operated at normal levels, the budget cutters might decide that the "non-essential
personnel were truly non-essential and send them packing to the unemployment lines for
real.


But most webmasters kept their servers up, even if they themselves were home on
furlough. I was glad that the Web server I work on stayed up. The hardware and software is
pretty reliable, and our customers still needed the information on the Web pages. The
frustration and anger at being told to pack up and leave was somewhat offset by the
knowledge that the servers could continue to serve.


Of course, our customers continued to pour in electronic mail. Despite surreptitious
electronic forays from home, I had nearly 250 messages waiting for me when I returned to
the job. The volume of mail is tough to keep up with under normal circumstances. But being
off-line for four weeks meant a large backlog of unhappy correspondents awaiting my
replies.


There is another more subtle aspect to the decision to shut down a Web server. A major
Web site requires constant tending by many people. If those people are not available, the
information on the site grows stale. The seriousness of this degradation depends on the
nature of the information, but the concept is valid, whether the Web page's half-life is
measured in hours or months.


At one extreme, there are Web pages that almost maintain themselves. The
"customers update the information. For example, Hypermail service is a repository of
the e-mail messages from the participating mail lists. If the hardware and software is
stable, only occasional technical intervention is required to keep the service functioning
at nearly its full capacity.


Other Web pages lose their utility in a matter of hours. Who wants a forecast of
yesterday's weather?


But many federal agency programs are relatively stable (notwithstanding the current
political controversies). Their program materials may go for months before becoming dated.


Some Web sites can go stale but not be obvious about it. They look fresh, but peel back
the skin and you find the insides spoiled. If your customers are making significant
decisions based on obsolete information, you are doing them a disservice. If health and
safety issues are involved, either declare your webmasters and their authors to be
essential employees or shut down the service.


If you know what to look for, stale Web sites can be detected readily. The primary
indicator is the information itself. Many visitors have enough familiarity with the
subject matter to tell if last year's report has not been updated.


Those who are not familiar with the material can look at the "what's new page. If
the latest entry is weeks or months old, it's a stale site. Also, file creation dates can
be detected with a click of your right mouse button; stale pages have consistently old
dates.


The Mosaic browser's Advanced Hotlist Manager has a couple of nice features that can
help you check the health of a Web page. First, under FILE, import the current Web page's
anchors into your Hotlist. Second, while highlighting the Web page, under OPTIONS, select
What's New.


Mosaic automatically checks your Web page Hotlist for updates and missing pages. It
flags the links that have changed. If no new flags appear, the Web page is showing signs
of staleness.


Like gardens, Web sites must tended continually, or they will deteriorate. Whether or
not an agency is on furlough, you must be on the lookout for signs of obsolescence.


Walter R. Houser is responsible for information resources management and policy at
a major federal agency .


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