While the World Wide Web works great as a fancy display device, the real power of the Web lies in interactivity. In fact, a number of innovative government agencies these days are offering custom Web pages on-the-fly for Web site visitors. These organizations have discovered that harnessing the Web's inherent interactivity can create highly personalized and responsive Web experiences that simultaneously build user loyalty and burnish their organization's image. In essence, these next-generation interactive Web sites take advantage of a simple truth: People who take the trouble to visit a government Web site are generally extremely thirsty for information. Take the time to offer slick ways to quench that thirst, and there is a good chance an organization's public-service image will shine with a new luster.
Fortunately, one of the inspiring things about the Web is that new twists on interactivity are emerging all the time. What follows is a sampling of key interactive elements that should be considered for any government Web site looking to go interactive.
Web Site Search Engines
Too many Web sites are little more than elephantine filing cabinets floating in cyberspace. There's plenty of information, but digging for it can be irksome. On-site search engines help solve this problem by fetching very specific data for very specific needs.
One of the most impressive of this ilk is the on-site search engine for the state of California. Visitors here can enter searches by agency, subject, what's new and text queries -- and even target specific government computers for their searches. Meanwhile, visitors to the San Francisco Public Library's Web site can do a complete search of the institution's holdings.
A variation on the search engine, data drills enable Web site visitors to narrow their quest for information to an ever-finer point. At the Web site for the city of San Diego, for example, visitors can point-and-click their way through a plethora of regional maps that offer highly detailed and specific information about local soils, assessment fees, city planning and the like.
At Colorado's Web site, prospective interns can "drill down" from a comprehensive list of state intern offerings for individual programs at 22 state departments. At the Nebraska Educational Service Web site, visitors can access a comprehensive map offering pointers to the Web sites of many of the state's schools.
Request for More Information Forms
A fundamental facet of any interactive Web site, formalized request for more info forms are, unfortunately, still the exception on the Web. One site with an especially sophisticated twist on this capability is that of the California Trade and Commerce Agency. By filling out a simple online form, businesses can receive a steady stream of custom-tailored, profit-building data via e-mail from the agency.
Meanwhile, at the Georgia Division of Public Health Web site, visitors can request a birth certificate over the Web and print out forms for other standard informational requests.
New York City
The best sales people find ways to encourage potential customers to sell themselves on a product. Who said government agencies cannot take a page from this book? Web sites for New York City's mayor and Boston's mayor put their best foot forward by offering looky-lous an intimate, interactive tour of their local governments and the responsibilities of their illustrious mayors.
Like Mount Everest, too many video cameras are being connected to the Net just because they're there. Fortunately, the Washington State Department of Transportation is leveraging Webcams usefully. For the Puget Sound region, the state DOT offers video snapshots updated every 90 seconds of Puget Sound arteries shot from 50 locations. Virtually everyone in the Puget Sound region can check up on their local bottleneck trouble spots from the comfort of their homes.
One of the great potentials of the Web is its ability to disseminate vast quantities of data and information to people who really want it. Case in point: the Texas Workforce Commission's Web site. Ingeniously, the site enables any visitor to download the commission's entire database of available jobs. Someone had their thinking cap on when this site was designed.
Michigan DOT's Detroit freeway monitoring system relies on an ever-changing color-coded graphic map to show travelers specific driving conditions (rated light, medium, heavy and very heavy). Road conditions on all of the city's major arteries are updated every 60 seconds, and icons are also added as needed to depict accident and construction project locations. Plus, drivers going out of state can click on links that take them to other traffic monitoring Web sites maintained by nearby state DOTs.
Equally impressive is another new interactive Web site maintained by the Washington DOT. Winter travelers can access a map that gives them current snow conditions on all 11 Washington state mountain-pass highways.
What's to Come?
Meanwhile, for a comprehensive look at "what will be" when it comes to state DOT and Web interactivity, check out Smart Trek -- a national public demonstration project funded by the federal government and featuring 25 public and private partners. Smart Trek is one of the most ambitious interactive government projects on the Web.
During the coming year, look for more companies to add other interactive technologies -- like mailing lists -- to their communications arsenals. Indeed, the most sophisticated Internet mailing list software enables an organization to add URL "hot links" to the text -- those clickable words you see that lead you to other Web pages and Web sites.
Embedded with a dozen or more URL hot links and supporting text, these mailing lists are for all intents and purposes "mobile Web pages," which can be mailed directly to subscriber's e-mail box monthly, weekly or even daily.
Some government Web sites big on graphics should begin experimenting with panoramic virtual reality. Essentially, panoramic VR enables Web site designers to create photo-realistic, 3D-like environments that irresistibly suck visitors into the action. To get an advanced look at this graphic future, check out companies like Infinite Pictures, View360, Evox Productions and Communiqu