Forest Service clears a path to the Web


At the height of summer traffic to the Forest Service's Web site, the agency is making a complete infrastructure overhaul for Section 508 compliance.

Christine Murray aims to make sure Web visitors can see the forest as well as the trees on the Forest Service's content-heavy site.
It's all about access, said Christine Murray, program manager in the communications office. Murray said the site's 2.9 million visitors have had difficulties navigating the site for information about national forests.

'That's tough to find now,' Murray said, and the number of visitors is expected to double to 5.8 million in 2002.

Applied Theory Corp., an Internet services manager and Web host in New York, is doing the overhaul as a subcontractor under a General Services Administration contract awarded to Dynamic Technology Systems Inc. of Alexandria, Va. Applied Theory in January won its own GSA contract.

Michael Endres, director of creative services at the company's federal office in Reston, Va., said he noticed immediately how difficult the Forest Service site was to navigate. Each page for a national forest looks different, for example, which can confuse a visually disabled visitor.

If a user clicks on the link for Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, the page shows a large map in the center. California's Angeles National Forest page, however, shows links ranging from adventure passes to news about national forest management legislation. The site's presentations are all different and 'tough for the visitor,' Murray said.

She decided the site had too much data about the service's inner workings, instead of public information about the forests as vacation destinations.

'We want to develop a new visitor center site,' she said, so that visitors will feel welcome and easily find out about activities at the forests without being confused by links to Agriculture Department business, public affairs contacts, and fire and aviation information.

'It's just very, very content-heavy,' Murray said.

Applied Theory is soliciting opinions from users as well as design experts for the redesign. 'We're trying to get input from people at every level,' Endres said. 'We're going to meet or exceed 508 guidelines every way we can [so that] it's not just disabled people that benefit from Section 508.'

The reconstruction will run past the deadline for federal Web sites to become accessible to disabled users. The Forest Service expects a fall finish.

The site will be hosted on an existing 8-year-old IBM RS/6000 server running AIX, and it might also have an IBM WebSphere application server, all to be operated by the Forest Service's parent USDA.

WebSphere 'would be the underlying application server for the content management and future electronic commerce application development,' Endres said. 'We want the people who will maintain the site infrastructure to be very comfortable.'


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