Web expands access to labor stats

What's more

Age: 52

Family: Wife, Rita; and two sons, Matt, 14, and Tim, 12

Pets: Puppy, a 10-year-old dog; and Rocky, a cat

Car currently driven: Mercury Mystique

Last book read: Churchill by Roy Jenkins

Military service: Marine Corps

Leisure activities: Rugby, sailing and reading histories and biographies

Richard Devens, Online Stats Master

Henrik G. DeGyor

Richard Devens, executive editor for the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Monthly Labor Review, knows the value of technology for the bureau's employees and also for citizens.

He remembers when agencies stored their information on mainframes and had to send hard copies of documents to citizens, so Devens said he appreciates the power of Internet publishing.

Devens has been at the bureau since 1975. He started working as an economist in the Employment and Unemployment Statistics Division and has led the Publishing Division since 1994.

Before coming to BLS, Devens served in the Marine Corps between 1969 and 1972, rising to the rank of sergeant.

He has a bachelor's degree in international relations and economics and a master's degree in economics from American University.

GCN staff writer Dipka Bhambhani interviewed Devens on the telephone.

GCN: How has IT changed the operations of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and of government in general?

DEVENS: What has changed most is how broadly distributed computing power is. Decades ago, you had to go to a terminal, someplace remote from your desk, and perhaps be connected to a mainframe computer someplace off-site. You would have to go through a fairly elaborate amount of work to call up data and information.

Internet availability has made access to information that you used to have to be a computer specialist to get to available to anyone. We're finding, particularly in the publication and information area, that what we do is help guide people through this kind of access and the information for themselves.

So, it's been a devolution of IT down to working levels and even into the data user levels.

GCN: How did BLS use these mainframe systems, and how has that changed?

DEVENS: Our business at the Bureau of Labor Statistics is economic time series information, statistics and information about the labor market and the economy. For example, someone might call us and want to know the unemployment rate back to the beginning of the series.

For some of the less-frequently requested kinds of series, we would go to a dumb terminal operating a program called Wilbur or Super Wilbur, and we would call up our LabStat database. If we were lucky and could work the codes, we would get a printout on the old wide computer paper and would send it by mail to the person who requested it.

The only thing that has stayed the same is we still call the database LabStat. But, there's nothing else that is remotely the same in terms of operations, in terms of speed or in terms of the amount of things that are available.

I wasn't here in pre-mainframe days. The statistical agencies of the government were among the first civilian agencies to use mainframes. The first computer that was not a Defense Department computer was installed by the Census Bureau in about 1950.

I'm not sure how far behind the Census we were, but I'm sure we didn't tolerate that situation for long'that the Census Bureau would have a computer and we wouldn't.

GCN: How has the Internet affected publishing and information services?

DEVENS: I would look at it from a customer standpoint. Back in the old days when we were working on a dumb terminal with SuperWilbur and a mainframe database, most of our questions would come from a fairly narrow group of academic and government researchers, some people involved in the financial community and people from the media.

Today we get those same groups, but we get literally every other part of the population that is affected by the economy and by information about the economy: people who are trying to make decisions about moving or changing careers, people who are affected by the ups and downs of the employment in their industry, people who are affected by changes in wages in their local area. They all are able to get information from us quickly and directly.

GCN: What IT trends have affected the bureau's delivery of services?

DEVENS: The Internet has had an enormous impact. But there are other electronic media that we found useful in informing and educating the public, such as fax on demand, and voice and data integration that lets someone call BLS by phone to receive information. Rather than have a person look it up, the database extracts it directly to the telephone and provides the answer.

GCN: What advancements have helped employees in the bureau?

DEVENS: Electronic payroll systems. In some ways, doing it electronically has helped particularly in that there is no longer the one or two people that control all access into that kind of a system. That's been a useful trend.

On things like timekeeping and payroll management, most employees do that now essentially on their own workstations. It is checked and edited pretty much automatically. It's electronically presented to a supervisor to be certified. Then it goes on, and people get paid. In the old days, it was a single timekeeper who did all this on paper with pencil.

GCN: You relaunched your Web site in June. What kind of a reception has it gotten?

DEVENS: The launch of the new BLS site largely brought us in line with the look and feel of the Labor Department. So, we're able to put a more integrated face to the public.

We have gotten basically good comments. We were able to design an interface that maintained the functions that were important to us, which is basically people being able to browse a huge variety of statistics with a look and feel that is the same as the rest of the department.

The users coming to us for the first time or who are not professional users of statistical data tend to say that the new design is attractive and seems to meet their needs. Some of the more rigorously statistical people that we deal with thought it was a little too informal.

GCN: What changes did you make to the site?

DEVENS: We made a strong effort to design and extensively test a site that would be more easily understood and would be easier for the general user. We made it more attractive, more colorful and visually accessible. We have more users now than we had in June, but that continues a trend that has been going on since we launched the site.

GCN: How important is making your site accessible to the disabled?

DEVENS: This is something we put a lot of time and effort into. Most of the things you do to make the site simpler also make it more accessible, particularly to people with visual disabilities.

We recently hosted a conference for the federal statistical community on how to make statistical tables and charts and formulas more accessible to screen readers and similar technology to help the visually impaired. We are going to help develop the standards for doing that. There's going to be a large effort over the next year making HTML tables that a screen reader can parse easily.

GCN: How did BLS prepare to meet the Section 508 accessibility requirements?

DEVENS: We had always had good accessibility on our site. We committed early to making sure that anything that we did had an HTML version and a text version, at a minimum. We had avoided, but not entirely, some of the technologies such as Adobe Portable Document Format and images that are difficult to access for some people. We ended up developing tags to make sure that images we use had some sort of a readable explanation.

GCN: What IT projects and new information can users expects from the bureau?

DEVENS: We have just launched a new information product: Our new series of data on job openings and labor turnover is available at our Web site.

We're also in the process of converting our compensation working conditions periodical from a paper publication to an electronic journal. That is going to happen sometime around the turn of the year.

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