Agency Internet fairs dole out awareness rather than ribbons

You won't find an apple pie or a prizewinning heifer at an agency Internet fair, but
you might bring back a wagonload of ideas.


Several agencies now organize annual Internet fairs to fire up employee interest in
sharing public information. A cross between a town meeting and a high school science fair,
they usually take place in a cafeteria or lobby with a temporary phone line to the Net or
a connection to the building's LAN.


The fairs I've seen serve three purposes: They let the gurus in your agency show off
their Web work, they introduce other employees to the medium's possibilities, and they
serve as a swap meet for tips, software and graphics.


If your agency hasn't organized a fair yet, think seriously about it as a way of
encouraging employees to be creative with limited resources--in contrast with the booming
commercial Internet trade shows that hype expensive products and vaporware.


I recently stopped by the Health and Human Services Department's Internet Showcase,
held in the lobby of HHS headquarters in Washington and visited by about 600 HHS
employees. Seventy computers were connected to four different LANs within the building.


About 30 tables had been set up to show what various divisions were doing. One table
showed the new HHS Employee Information Service Web pages at http://www.os.dhhs.gov/progorg/ohr.eis_hom1.htm.
  The site gives employees a window into newsletters, job listings, available
training courses and details about benefits such as the open enrollment season.


Another table showed a secure Wide Area Information Server (WAIS) database developed
for the HHS Office for Civil Rights. It housed letters of findings that serve as an
official response to civil rights complaints. To search the database over the Net, users
must enter a password. The findings database was developed with commercial Web products
and uses the built-in encrypted password capabilities of browsers like Netscape
Communications' Navigator.


A similar fair was held last fall at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Besides demonstrating internal projects, the fair also sponsored booths for local
universities, Net service providers and community projects.


The Langley fair had its own Web site, which went on line weeks before the actual
event. Participants could register on line and see who else was exhibiting. You can still
visit http://www.larc.gov/ir2/  to
find out how that fair was organized.


The trick to organizing such an event is to have a coordinating committee. That's
especially important for a place like HHS, which has 12 divisions, each with its own
Internet development efforts.


HHS Secretary Donna Shalala's Continuing Improvement Program (CIP) brings people
together from across the department for various projects, and Internet implementation is
one of them. Campbell Gardett, director of the HHS News Division, said the Internet
Showcase was organized by the CIP Internet group.


"The showcase served all kinds of audiences," Gardett said. Advanced users
saw tricks for on-line searching and solving security problems, while "those with
little knowledge of the Internet got the flavor of it. It showed them where they ought to
be," he said.


Besides helping developers and end users, Internet fairs are a fast way for systems
managers to quantify issues. You might find, for instance, that two groups within the
agency are carrying out similar projects and should consolidate or refocus their efforts.


Are your Web developers using too many different tools? It might pay to get a site
license for some programs. Or someone may have a wonderful piece of shareware that could
save others money. You'd never learn those things just by visiting your agency's home
pages. A fair gives you a peek behind the scenes.


In tight budget times, don't forget that the Web also can "sell" your agency,
introducing visitors to your staff and projects. An overview page for your Web fair later
can serve as a Web site to highlight agency accomplishments.


For an example of an Internet fair taken to the extreme, visit the Internet 1996 World
Exposition at http://park.org.  The site was
put together by Carl Malamud of Internet Multicasting Services as an on-line-only project
with no physical meeting area. It highlights the best technologies while clustering
exhibits by interest and geographic area. It's a chance to look over the shoulders of Web
experts who have put together top-notch projects.


Shawn P. McCarthy, GCN's software and systems editor, is an Internet explorer. His
Internet address is smccarth@gcn.com.
 


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