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Federal Web Sites: The Next Wave?

The DisabilityInfo.gov site is a model for others in the government to follow, not just for what it does but for how it does so.

'Regular' citizens and government IT workers alike might want to take a look at DisabilityInfo.gov. It likely augers the next wave of public-facing federal Web sites, not just for what it does but also for how it does so.

What it does is federate, so to speak, from across the government the latest and most relevant information that has anything to do with disabled people, their families, their employers, and so forth. Content experts from 16 different federal agencies contribute information about transportation, health, housing, taxes, and much else to this site.

The site is designed to be organized according to how disabled people live their lives, with top-line Web classifications that are meaningful to humans instead of being about how the federal government organizes itself. So sure, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is a big contributor to the site's section on transportation, but it's not the only contributor--and you might just find DOT info scattered throughout the site, says DisabilityInfo program director Kevin Connors.

In government parlance, the site was designed to be "citizen-centric."

The 'how' is even more interesting: the Department of Labor (DOL), under whose auspices the site was re-developed because of a Presidential mandate back in 2002, essentially outsourced all technical aspects to a firm that used open-source, agile programming techniques, and component-based software. The DOL also employs a marketing firm to get the word out about the site, which helps disabled people learn about the site and use it, which in turn helps convince the aforementioned content experts to want to make time to contribute to the site.

It's an interesting mixture of approaches traditionally considered both "public" and "private." And just in the nick of time; at least one expert says American e-government initiatives have been losing steam and Asian countries have taken the lead.

In Brown University's 2005 study of e-government--both here and around the world--Taiwan and Singapore top the U.S. due to the quality of their Web-based and other technology initiatives for their citizens. Although this positioning is the same as last year, not too long ago the U.S. was top e-dog.

"The budget deficit has really squeezed the rest of the domestic budget outside of Homeland Security," says Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University, where he's been directing the annual e-government study since 2000. "It means we're limiting the introduction of technology into the public sector and to citizens."

Some of the Asian governments take a much more proactive approach to building the technical infrastructure, West explains; here everything is privatized and so "progress is slower and more episodic," he says. "In some countries, 70% of the population has access to broadband; here it's around 30%."

Especially in this context, the DisabilityInfo site is a positive development indeed.

Before 2002, the site had been completely outsourced--from hosting to security monitoring to everything else--to a consultancy called Devis. At that point the site was, according to Devis chief technology officer Martin Hudson, running in a total open-source environment with Linux and a PostSQL database, and was called DisabilityDirect. Then came President Bush's mandate to create a portal meant for the disabled community, and "pretty much everything changed," Hudson says.

Among other things, the site was moved to the GSA's hosting site, which meant a completely different environment: BEA Weblogic on Solaris and an Oracle DBMS. No open-source here. While they were at it, they decided to do a major feature upgrade.

Part of what makes this site interesting is how Devis developed it, with a test-based software approach. The idea is that you take the functional requirements, write the tests first, then code the software and run the code against the tests to make sure the code does what it's supposed to. "You test to know when you're done coding," Hudson explains.

This is one form of 'agile programming,' meaning code that can be developed quickly and still do what it's supposed to do functionally, scale up for enterprise strength, etc. It's kind of in the middle of 'traditional' waterfall methodologies on one side and Extreme Programming on the other.

Much of the Java-based development was built with components reused from other government sites. Components included the content-management system used by subject-matter experts around the federal government, the user authentication module, a way of 'aging' the content to pulls information off the public site according to user-defined rules, and other things.

All told, the site was redeveloped and transferred to the new operating environment inside of two months, according to DOL's Connors.

Next up will be to reach out to the state and local government level, to make the information more local and more actionable to the people who most need it. The site already conforms with the World Wide Web Consortium's accessibility guidelines and supports things like the Jaws screen reader to 'read' the Web site to someone who's visually impaired. The DOL will continue to add functionality like RSS feeds and the ability to 'call' the Web site on a regular phone.

In recognition of the site's approach and innovation, the Web Content Managers Forum--a peer group of over 900 federal, state, and local government Web managers--recently awarded DisabilityInfo its "Best Practice Peer Award."

Here's hoping the site is a model that others in the government will follow.

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