Ask people what they think of their state's official website and chances are, most won't have much to say -- government sites just aren't that popular. According to data from Alexa, a company that tracks Internet traffic, not one of the top 100 most visited sites in the United States was a state or local government portal as of July.

This could mean that many citizens are missing out on important information their state and local leaders want them to see online -- information that could impact their lives and relationship with the government.

Because people aren't spending enough time on state portals, Virginia officials are working to change this by creating mini-applications, called widgets, that visitors can take from Virginia's official portal and embed on their personal websites, blogs, social networking pages or other private pieces of Web real estate. These widgets contain state-specific data -- election news, lottery numbers or hotel information, for example -- that automatically update with new information.

"The most important consideration that we had was the user, and it was important to us to allow users to control content that they were interested in, as opposed to us trying to control the process of feeding it to them on a static website," said Emily Seibert, public relations and marketing specialist for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA).

This movable functionality makes things more convenient for people, in her opinion. "We didn't want them to be controlled by a state URL, and so the widget technology allowed us to provide portable and very dynamic content," Seibert said. "It's the kind of thing that changes frequently, like events at wineries, lottery numbers or inauguration events."

The widget technology came about as part of the state's portal redesign project that VITA began in 2008. The agency partnered with Virginia Interactive (VI), a subsidiary of NIC, a company specializing in e-government services. That year, the two groups planned to make Virginia.gov more attractive to the public. Objectives included providing easy-to-use tools, disseminating information in or close to real time, finding a way to engage younger citizens and making information portable. The widgets, which went live in June 2008, were one way to move toward these goals.

"We were looking at what was going on in the Web world, and how other websites were attracting visitors to their websites and delivering information more quickly," said Deanna Boehm, VI's marketing director. "[We] explored a couple of ideas for personalization and felt that the widgets would be the approach to deliver government information in a format that can be pollinated and shared through social networks, websites and e-mail."

Sharing the Knowledge

According to Travis Sarkees, a senior project manager at VI, 14 widgets have been available on the site since its inception. Some widgets come and go based on relevance or season like the elections widget. Six were available as of July: hotel booking, local winery listings, lottery results, news feeds, fun facts and links to state parks. VITA and the VI worked with Clearspring, a third-party company, to develop the technology and deploy widgets on its AddThis platform.

"I would say the biggest challenge for us was more in creating the good ideas," said Mark Elmendorf, a VI Web applications developer. "What would make a usable widget? What would our citizens really enjoy? What would they keep coming back to?"

All the widgets work similarly as far as portability and functionality.

The Virginia Fun Facts and Virginia Wineries widgets, for example, are two mini-apps with the same modes of delivery. The Fun Facts widget lists a random piece of data about the state for any user interested in expanding his or her knowledge of Virginia. There's nothing to click or download, just interesting pieces of brain food for curious readers. The Fun Facts widget will likely display different text with every page visit or refresh. The Wineries widget, on the other hand, has a scroll bar that lists state wineries. When the user clicks a listing, a new page opens with the winery's location, description, admission fees and contact.

Though the two widgets have different features, they're identical in how they're accessed or moved around, just like the other widgets.

To add a widget, a Web user picks one from Virginia.gov and clicks the "Share" button, and a directory of websites appears. The user then selects from roughly 100 sites to embed the widget into. There are well-known sites like AIM Share, iGoogle, Facebook, Digg, Fark, Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as lesser known ones like Link Ninja, LinkaGoGo, Farkinda, CiteULike, Aero, ZooLoo or Virb. Users select one widget and follow on-screen instructions to place it on a site they want, or bypass the Web page embedding option and e-mail the widget to whomever they choose.

Sarkee thinks the widgets might be more credible if they're seen on a friend's page. "It comes as an endorsement by their friend rather than an endorsement by state government," he said. "That's big with social media."

Data in Demand

The widgets' dynamic content has been viewed more than 3 million times from more than 3,500 placements, according to VI, which tracks the widgets' use. The majority of these views and placements occurred recently -- 2009 saw 2.3 million views and 2,303 placements for all widgets that year, as opposed to 763,432 views and 1,219 placements in 2008. But not all widgets were available in both years: The elections widget was only up in 2008 and one for hotel reservations debuted in 2009.

The most popular widget in 2008 was elections -- it had 686,850 views and 480 placements. Boehm said the media even contacted the government to ask if the widget could be placed on news sites. The state portal suffered during election season because so many page views impacted bandwidth, but the widgets displayed information without delay because they were hosted on remote sites.

"The state website was down for awhile because of the heavy traffic load, but the widget was still up and running," Boehm said, "so it was still displaying real-time results to citizens."

When the widgets were first designed, creators envisioned the widgets as an ad hoc remote backup for critical information -- they hoped for bandwidth-saving options so the widgets wouldn't tax government servers locally.

VITA staff members were so pleased with the widgets that they submitted the project to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers for consideration for an outstanding IT achievement award. That was a wise decision: Virginia won the 2009 recognition award for achievement in government-to-citizen interaction.

"This was truly an initiative that looked at the user, how they consumed information and how they might like to consume information -- how they're doing it in their normal everyday lives," Seibert said.

The widgets are doing well enough for now, but there could be room for growth and experimentation. According to Boehm, VITA and VI are still determining the full range of sites that widgets can work with. They've also contacted other state agencies to encourage them to create agency-specific widgets to widen the selection.

"Any state entity is welcomed and encouraged to join, and it is a very robust community," Seibert said. "Virginia Interactive has presented several different times about the wrapper technology, shown people how they work, encouraged them to participate and about how they might use the widget with their particular content."

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.