EPA, HUD webmasters offer up lessons learned

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Housing and Urban Development Department,
two agencies that pioneered the dissemination of information online, had to make up the
rules as they went along.

EPA started its Web site as a “science experiment—no rules had been
written,” said Emma McNamara, the agency’s webmaster. In the summer of 1994, she
posted the site’s first page.

Today, the site at www.epa.gov contains about 250,000 Hypertext Markup Language
documents and thousands of Adobe Portable Document Format and Corel WordPerfect documents.
The site gets about 1.5 million hits a day, McNamara said.

Support for federal Web sites came from the bottom up, HUD Web manager Candis B.
Harrison said. HUD’s information technology office created the department’s
first Web page in April 1995. The technical staff then sought advice from the Office of
the Secretary on managing content.

It was not until attention started coming from outside the department that senior
managers at HUD began paying attention to the site, Harrison said. HUD Secretary Andrew
Cuomo is promoting the deployment of Web kiosks to provide public access to HUD
information [GCN, April 5, Page 10].

To provide citizen-friendly information, McNamara and Harrison said at the recent FOSE
trade show in Washington, agencies must consider their users’ needs and listen to
feedback. Besides text, EPA provides data in graphical formats because its users want data
displayed pictorially, McNamara said. For example, during the ozone danger season that
runs from May to September, EPA posts hourly ozone levels tracked on maps.

Tracking site use to determine what visitors want is a developing science, they said.

Raw visitor statistics provide some general information about users of the two sites.
At the EPA site, the largest number of hits are on pages designed primarily for industries
that operate under EPA regulation. Among the most heavily trafficked pages are the
EnviroFacts data warehouse and the Federal Register listings, which EPA updates daily.

At the HUD site, three-quarters of the visitors are citizens, Harrison said. One of the
most heavily visited pages lists homes for sale, a fact that has resulted in a direct link
to the page from the HUD site’s home page.

Neither EPA nor HUD use their Web sites to conduct business with the public. Even so,
the two Web managers said, security is a constant concern. HUD has a firewall to protect
its Web site, Harrison said. EPA plans to install one soon, McNamara said.

Developing citizen-friendly Web sites is a process, the two government officials
agreed, and the two agencies continually are refining their sites. EPA is creating virtual
reading rooms where visitors can study a selected list of documents.

HUD, meanwhile, is rolling out its public kiosks. There are 43 of the free-standing,
online access points in shopping malls, city halls and other public areas around the
country. By year’s end, HUD expects to deploy another 57 kiosks—at least one in
every city with a HUD office, Harrison said.

Most of the information available to kiosk users is pulled from the Web site, although
some video clips are stored on each kiosk’s hard drive.  

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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