Government on the Web

Government indeed likes the Internet. But the question is, is government providing anything useful, or is it there for the thrill of it?

by / October 31, 1995 0
Nov 95 Jurisdiction: Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Calif., Seattle, Wash., U.S. Department of Defense, Federal Trade Commission, Olympia, Wash., U.S. Geologic Survey, Washington Dept. of Transportation, Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, Census Bureau. Vendors: Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Congressional Quarterly Books.

James Evans Contributing Writer

The federal government has always liked the Internet. That's no surprise given that the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Project Agency began developing the planet's largest computer network in 1969 to prevent the military's computer system from being destroyed in the first volley of a nuclear war. The Internet (originally named ARPAnet) finally came online in 1972, and its been expanding ever since. But the federal government likes the Internet now more than ever. State governments like it too. Government officials like it so much they're practically tripping over each other to have a presence on it. This stampede has occurred primarily in the past two years. Sure, there were an increasing number of agencies posting material at FTP and gopher sites, like the Census Bureau, the CIA, State Department, California Legislature and others, but it was nothing compared to the current onslaught. The difference? Enter the World Wide Web in 1990, created by a scientist at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) so researchers around the globe could exchange documents regardless of which protocol (FTP, gopher, telnet) they were using. The Web, as it is known, employs hypertext transfer protocol, meaning that by clicking the mouse on specific words or phrases on the screen, you will be transferred to other screens with additional information. The Web permits displays not only of text, but also audio, graphics and video in bright colors. It transformed the Internet from an often-difficult and confusing search for information - using arcane keyboard commands - to an entertaining and rewarding journey through a wealth of material in what amounts to a global electronic library. And it brought the government - both federal, state and local - into its embrace. It's hard to find a federal office, state capital, or even a city that isn't represented on the Internet. Usually that presence is through a Web page. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan recently issued an executive order that all departments get on the Web to allow residents online access to city information - to fill out forms, get regulations, report crime and complain until their computers can't take it anymore.

Useful or Wasteful? Government indeed likes the Internet. But the question is, is government providing anything useful, or is it there for the thrill of it? Are tax dollars being spent wisely? Does anyone really benefit from official Web pages and other sites, or are they merely monuments to bureaucratic egos? You don't have to stray far from the Internet for an answer. People familiar with the Internet overwhelmingly support the idea of governments offering their wares electronically. There's fluff, many concede, but shallowness generally is the exception rather than rule. Government may fall short in many areas, but in cyberspace it has delivered with a comprehensiveness and enthusiasm that wins applause across the country. "I think the government Web pages are fabulous," said Myra Wilson, a librarian at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom - a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm. "I'm thinking about the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] Web page (URL: http://www.ftc.gov) which can send you to speeches, press releases and decisions. Things are posted quickly and can be easily accessed and delivered. For me this is a great savings over sending a messenger to the Public Reference Room. For a law librarian in Montana, it's a godsend!" States too get their due. Jeff Sconyers, general counsel at Children's Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle, Wash., said government Internet sites have proven to be invaluable not only in his work, but in his family life too. "The Washington state gopher site (URL: gopher://olympus.dis.wa.gov) is great, and worth all the tax dollars that created it," he said. "It offers the most up-to-date access to state legislation, and getting that is a big part of my job. There's no other way to get that information in a timely way unless you're in Olympia [the capital]. That's really valuable." Sconyers added that he has helped his daughter locate geologic material from a U.S. Geologic Survey Web page (URL: http://info.er.usgs.gov/) for a school project, and even was able to order USGS publications from the site. Also, using the Washington state Web page (URL: http://www.seanet.com/Seattle/Parks/Parks. html) he researched state recreational areas and selected one to visit with his daughter on their first backpacking trip. Particularly useful to commuters, he said, is a Department of Transportation Web page (URL: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ regions/northwest/NWFLOW/) that shows traffic congestion, road construction and ferry schedules in Seattle, updated every five minutes. One office building in the financial district even displays the Web page constantly in the lobby as a service to the people who work in it. Yet Sconyers isn't without criticism. "A lot of what's out there is junk, though," he said. "A lot of the federal government stuff is pitched to a fourth grade level. A lot of it is limited to phone numbers and addresses, which is not very useful. On the other hand, phone numbers and addresses aren't easy to find anymore, so it's better to have them than not." Municipalities have been slow to adopt to the Internet, but lately they have been showing up more often. Robert E. Drescher, a systems analyst for the city of Los Angeles, developed the new Department of Building and Safety Web page (URL: http://www.ci.la.ca.us) to provide residents with a guide for obtaining building permits, the laws regarding building permits, directory of employees in the department, job openings in the department and the current agenda of the Planning Commission. The site will evolve to offer online applications for building permits. It also offers residents the opportunity to report hazards by e-mail. "The point of this is help people from having to come downtown and wait in a line," he said. "The Web page tells them who to call or e-mail. The mayor believes it is cost efficient because it is business friendly, and he wants Los Angeles to be known as friendly to business. The Internet is still young, but it is growing incredibly fast. It clearly is the way of the future, so cities are beginning to recognize that they need to have a presence on it and make it easy for people to get information about the city and its services." Drescher added that the Department of Building and Safety Web page required a week of his time to create, and will demand about 10 hours a month to maintain. "The cost is fairly minimal," he said.

Financial Perspectives Cost is important both to government agencies and taxpayers, and can range from a relative pittance to expensive, depending on the size and sophistication of the site. A simple, no frills Web page can cost as little as $2,000 to develop and $100 a month to maintain in terms of posting fresh information. But that would be using a third-party computer server, and most government agencies want to have and control their own equipment. They also don't want to look drab next to their colleagues, so cost rises with the enhanced brilliance of graphics. A very sophisticated Web page, with online forms, access to extensive material and links to other agencies and information, can run up to $100,000 or more. Government Internet sites range across that spectrum. "They offer a variety of information, and in general they're excellent," observed Bruce Maxwell, a resident of Washington, D.C., and author of Washington Online: How to Access the Federal Government on the Internet (Congressional Quarterly Books) "That information would cost a lot of money if you tried to get it from other sources, so there's a lot of value out there. There's stuff for almost anyone in any circumstance."

...Sidebar... Internet sites of note: * Federal Web Locator: A comprehensive list of federal government sites.URL: http://www.law.vill.edu/Fed-Agency/fedwebbloc.html WWW

* Virtual Law Library State Government Servers: A comprehensive list of state government sites: URL: http://www.law.indiana.edu/law/states.html

* Yahoo's U.S. States: A comprehensive list of state government sites: URL: http://www.yahoo.com/Regional/U_S_States/

* CityLink: A comprehensive list of state and municipal government sites:URL: http://www.Neosoft.com/citylink/



...Sidebar... Uniform Resource Locator Explained Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is an addressing system created for the World Wide Web. It allows the software (called browsers, such as Netscape, Mosaic, etc.) that lets you to view the Web to go directly to the information you want. Using URLs are like taking the express bus and not having to stop at small towns along the way. For instance, if you wanted to look at Government Technology's guide to the the federal government's gigantic public database, called Fedworld, you could direct your Web browser to go to the magazine's home page URL (http://www.govtech.net), then use your mouse to select the magazine's logo, which would take you to a list of choices, including one for searching past issues. You could then select that to get to a box where you would type in a keyword - Fedworld in this case. The title of the article would appear, which you would select with the mouse and then the article itself would materialize. Or right at the start you could type in the entire URL for the Fedworld article (http://www.govtech.net/1995/apr/fedworld.htm) and let your browser do the rest. Every computer, called a server, attached to the Internet, and every file or document in those millions of servers, have distinct URL addresses. URLs can be annoyingly long and seemingly incomprehensible, but if you use them they will be save you a lot time and a lot of frustration. Every URL consists of specific sections, which include: * the protocol (World Wide Web, gopher, file transfer protocol or FTP, telnet) * the address of the server where the information is stored * the path to and name of the file or document.

For example, in the Fedworld article, the protocol is identified as the World Wide Web by the http, which means hypertext transfer protocol, the standard for Web addresses. (However, some Web pages, especially those for individual members of Congress, use FTP as their protocol.) The protocol always is followed by ://, which tells the browser that the server address is next. Government Technology's server address is www.govtech.net. By combining the protocol and the server address (http://www.govtech.net), you would land at the magazine's home page. But to skip that stop and the others that follow, you need to tell the browser how to find the Fedworld article. You do that by adding the path to the URL - http://www.govtech.net/1995/apr/fedworld.htm - with a forward slash separating each stop. It informs the browser that the article was published in 1995, in Government Technology, in April, and that it's indexed as Fedworld. The htm stands for hypertext markup, which is a variation of hypertext markup language (html) the computer language used to create Web pages. Web addresses often, but not always, will end with html or htm. The same system applies to gopher, FTP and telnet. If you are going to a gopher server, say at the Library of Congress, you would tell the browser to go to gopher, followed by the name of the server (gopher://marvel.loc.gov). If you want to go to a specific file, gopher and telnet servers often, but not always, are followed by the name of the port they dock at, designated by a colon and then a number. Gophers generally are at port 70, while telnet normally resides at port 23. The ports then are followed by the path to the document. For example, federal government information at the Library of Congress gopher is located at gopher://marvel.loc.gov:70/11/federal/fedinfo Although you must use a Web browser to enjoy the full benefits of URLs, you can employ them even if you aren't using a browser. Sometimes the URL has changed without you knowing about it, and those changes often are insignificant. The file may be located in the same place but be labeled differently, or maybe moved to another category. So you can follow the URL to each stop and see if the document is still there, but in a different section or under a another name. Understanding URLs and how they work is like knowing the language when you visit another country - everything is considerably less mysterious.