FirstGov connects users to 27 million Web pages

FirstGov connects users to 27 million Web pages

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

To quote Dr. Frankenstein: 'It's ALIVE!'

The FirstGov portal went online late last month. A group of programmers at the General Services Administration worked on Internet time'24 hours a day, seven days a week'to develop the governmentwide portal, said Sally Katzen, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

The government portal is expected to increase public attention to federal Web sites. Commerce Department chief information officer Roger W. Baker sent an e-mail to fellow CIOs reminding them to make sure their sites are ready for this increased scrutiny.

'FirstGov raises the visibility of our public Web sites and documents'a goal we all share,' Baker said in the e-mail, which was sent the day before FirstGov officially went online. 'At the same time, this heightened visibility will make it imperative that agencies step up their efforts to make sure Web sites do not contain in- appropriate material.'

Among the things Baker warned against were posting personal information such as Social Security numbers, which have appeared on some federal Web sites (see story, Page 8), and collecting personal information from children under 13, which is prohibited by the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

The gateway, at, provides access to more than 27 million government Web pages.

The creation of such a portal demonstrates that the government understands the Internet, said entrepreneur Eric Brewer, who led the nonprofit Federal Search Foundation, which created the site's monster search engine.

He is founder and chief scientist for search engine maker Inktomi Corp. of Foster City, Calif., and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Eric Brewer, who helped create the search engine for FirstGov, says providing information is only the first step for the site.

GSA paid Brewer and the foundation $1 for their work on the project, a measure to circumvent federal regulations prohibiting gifts to agencies.
Three months later'

Referring to the promise President Clinton made this summer to get the site up quickly, Brewer said, 'It is possible to make a difference in 90 days.'

He said he hopes the site will foster a new trust in government. As part of that effort, the site will not track where users go and will not plant cookies on their systems, Katzen said.

The portal is the first step toward an array of services the administration has planned under its electronic-government umbrella.

'There is no belief on anyone's part that we are done or that this is a complete project,' Brewer said.

Providing information through the site is only the first step, President Clinton said in a June webcast when he announced the plans for the governmentwide portal. Eventually, agencies will also use FirstGov for transactions with citizens, he said [GCN, July 3, Page 3].

Getting the government to care about how it looks online is just as important as the unveiling itself, Brewer said.

'There are a lot of user interface issues,' he said. 'Many agencies are not where they want to be, but that's OK.'

The site's design is popular, GSA administrator David J. Barram said. 'Whenever someone sees this page, they say, 'Ooh, I like it.'

The technology for the immense search engine, which lets users pull up the full text of pages, has been used by Microsoft Corp. and America Online Inc. for their portals, Brewer said.

The Federal Search Foundation will run the site for two years. After that, the government can take over FirstGov or outsource its management.

Brewer said he could not estimate the value of the work he had donated to the government because in a typical arrangement, he would have based the price on site usage, which has yet to be determined.

The government is seeking partners for the site, which contains a link with contact information for interested parties.

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