HHS goes open source to build better, more powerful website
- By John Breeden II
- May 01, 2013
When the Healthcare.gov website re-launches in June, users may not notice much of a change, but on the back end, there is a lot of open-source magic going on that will make content generation and the sharing of information more seamless than it is on perhaps any other government site operating today.
If all goes according to plan, it could become a roadmap for other agencies looking to increase the usability and quality of content on their own Web pages.
While today the Healthcare.gov site is a fairly sleepy little hamlet run by the Health & Human Services Department, that's about to change. It's poised to become the main source of information for the Affordable Health Care Act, sometimes referred to as Obamacare, when having health insurance becomes mandatory. States will likely link to the site and use information from it as they try to help people learn about the law and sign them up for affordable health care. So Healthcare.gov is about to experience the equivalent of serious boom times, and the back-end upgrade was necessary to make sure that transition goes smoothly.
The entire site is being reprogrammed without the need for a content management system. The CMS servers that power most websites are often the bottleneck that slows them down. If more users are about to access more files, as HHS is expecting, a typical CMS requires beefier servers or even more servers.
Healthcare.gov is getting around this by generating most of the new site using the Jekyll content editor, according to an HHS blog post. Jekyll is a directory of templates that is set up with the look and feel of a certain website. Users generating content with Jekyll can create static pages in just a few minutes. Those pages can then be called up on an Apache or other Web server and are assembled on users' computers when they visit a page.
Because the entire file structure is static, it requires only one server most of the time regardless of how many users are accessing the system. A website is not storing terabytes of content. It's storing templates and the instructions on how to assemble them.
People tasked with generating content for Healthcare.gov are using a program called Prose to create their pages. Prose is a visual interface that makes creating pages within the static system even easier. It's almost a point-and-click interface with very little programming skill required.
One reason HHS’s new website is important is because all the code and content is on GitHub, which will allow other agencies, states and individual developers to collaborate and improve the code.
"With the new Heathcare.gov’s code available on GitHub, others will be able to reuse the entire code-base as they see fit," HHS officials posted. This is incredibly valuable because some states will set up their own state-based health insurance marketplaces. They will be able to easily check out and build upon the work being done at the federal level."
A final tool for state governments will deliver Healthcare.gov’s content through an application programming interface that can be embedded on state government or private sector websites.
John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.