Commerce site offers cyberclearinghouse for data

Commerce site offers cyberclearinghouse for data

Format of the department's site will please newshounds, but it lacks advanced e-commerce technologies

By Joe Dysart

Special to GCN

The Commerce Department's Web site, at, presents a navigable clearinghouse full of data, links and insight into Commerce bureaus and initiatives.

A blue navigation bar at the top of the page offers jumps to the Commerce site's top areas: About DOC, Newsroom, Resources, Person Finder and Site Research.

From the home page, visitors get not only a quick overview of the department's mission but also of breaking news from agencies under the departmental umbrella. A click on one of the page's links will bring up more data without having to search for it past the opening page.

'The home page averages just under 50,000 page views per week,' Commerce computer specialist Haig Evans-Kavaldjian said. 'Because the department is an umbrella for organizations as diverse as the Census Bureau and the National Weather Service, many of our home page visitors drill down for the information they've come to find.'

Designed in a newspaper-style format, the home page devotes much of its space to breaking news, which appears in the form of short articles with headlines and sometimes with color photographs.

Although the format is ideal for newshounds and journalists, the heavy news emphasis could be disorienting to visitors who expect to find site navigation tools prominently displayed. But once a visitor gets past the headline din, site navigation becomes a snap.

What works,
what doesn't

' Intuitive, easy-to-use navigation bar for traveling quickly to areas of interest

' Elegantly sorted and centralized data about Census, e-commerce, cybersecurity and other initiatives

' Newspaper-style format, a favorite with Net cruisers

' Breaking news continually updated

' Handy and efficient Person Finder tool

' Exemplary research and data support for key efforts such as the permanent trade relations initiative and the government's electronic-commerce policy

' No bloated graphics to slow site viewing
' Page design a little busy for first-time visitors unfamiliar with Commerce and its constellation of agencies

' Sign-up service needed for automatic news release distribution via e-mail.

' No showcase for advanced e-commerce technologies such as audio and video streaming, 3-D animation, chat rooms and e-mail discussion lists

' Considerable real estate devoted to agency links grid that could go on another page

' Scrolling news story headlines box at top of the home page is gimmicky but not efficient

A blue navigation bar at the top of the page offers jumps to the site's main areas: About DOC, Newsroom, Resources, Person Finder and Site Search.

The bar facts

A second navigation bar at the page's bottom has links to departmental initiatives, such as the 2000 Census, cybersecurity and electronic-commerce policies. Still a third navigation bar on the right side of the page takes visitors to the Web sites of satellite agencies. Their place in the hierarchical infrastructure is clear from the bar.

A privacy statement prominently displayed at the upper left reassures visitors that the site collects only the date, time and address of a Hypertext Transfer Protocol request and its completion status.

'We are in the process of ensuring that where specific information is requested from a visitor to a specific Web site, the site will disclose how the information will be handled,' the privacy policy states.

The site's primary focus on breaking news carries over to the newsroom, which is an excellent resource. Too often, government and commercial Web designers squander their efforts on feeble newsroom pages with little more than a few press releases and a contact to telephone during business hours.

In contrast, Commerce's newsroom has a library of releases buttressed by the text of many executive speeches and selected congressional testimony, as well as audio sound bites and news reports that can be redistributed on television, radio and the Internet.

'The underlying database lets a news item be prepared, reviewed and approved well ahead of publication, then automatically go live at an appointed time,' Evans-Kavaldjian said. The scheduled items simultaneously and automatically appear on the home page, in the news archive and in cross-references on related pages.

Commerce publishes its news in such a way that other Web sites running script-capable Web servers with Microsoft Active Server Pages or Java can import the news in real time to post on their sites.

The site has several next-generation design elements that make it more than just another billboard in cyberspace. Visitors can manipulate some data with interactive tools.

Library of Commerce forms can be filled out online or downloaded in Adobe Portable Document Format copies. The public can retrieve forms to request publications; department employees can get forms they need for travel, security clearances and records of gifts from foreign governments. There also are links to Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration forms pages.

From the helpful and extensive links page, visitors can click on Commerce Internet services.

One surprising omission on the site is the dearth of advanced e-commerce technologies. As the de facto flagship of U.S. commerce, the site should showcase leading-edge technologies such as streaming audio and video, videoconferencing, 3-D imaging and animation, video chatrooms and Web site personalization tools that anticipate the needs of repeat visitors.

Key Staff

System detail

' Roger W. Baker, chief information officer

' Jeffrey R. Neal, deputy CIO

' Karen Hogan, director of departmentwide programs

' Morrie Goodman, director of public affairs

' Three hands-on workers: a programmer-analyst and two writer-editors to handle day-to-day maintenance and news updates

' Design staff: two programmer-analysts, a graphic designer and a quality assurance specialist

Front end:

' Custom-built Lotus Domino database running under Microsoft Windows
NT Server with an identical system for hot backup

' Windows NT Internet Information Server to support Web sites of Commerce agencies that use Microsoft FrontPage, Macromedia Dreamweaver and other Web authoring tools

' High-speed storage devices and high-capacity T1 Internet connections

' File storage through Domino's replication module that synchronizes dual servers running NT, plus regular tape backups

' Web authoring and maintenance through Domino, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, FrontPage, Dreamweaver, and hand-coded Hypertext Markup Language, Perl, PHP and Java

' Applications including Domino Workflow; Perl, PHP and Java; AltaVista search engine on a dedicated Compaq AlphaServer; and custom-built Person Finder running under Microsoft Internet
Information Server

Back end:

Domino and Oracle databases

The site's managers should consider setting up an entire domain, perhaps with private-sector sponsorships, to demonstrate advanced online technologies.

There are no plans at the moment to do so, but a site upgrade is under way, said James Barrett, a specialist in the Office of Public Affairs.

Barrett said the reconfigured site will aim less at news junkies than at a cross-section of the public interested in learning more about how to deal with the department and its agencies via the Web.

Joe Dysart is an Internet business consultant in Thousand Oaks, Calif. E-mail him at

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