Federal Webmasters seek new class of tools

Faced with an executive order from the president to get more government information into the public's hands - but without much budgetary or staffing assistance - federal agencies are refining Web sites for information delivery.

In an April 18 memorandum Clinton ordered department and agency heads to identify information resources that would "enrich the Internet as a tool for teaching and learning" and to launch new expanded Web services within six months.

The executive order is forcing agencies to change the nature of their Web sites. In the early days of the World Wide Web many agencies' Web pages were typically sources of very general information - and pointers to other information sources. These Web sites focused more on presentation than on content with Webmasters buying development tools that emphasized graphics and style.

But if the federal government's goal is to use its Web sites to disseminate information its greatest challenge lies in transforming and converting mountains of documents for access on the Web. Web design tools that focus primarily on graphics and design elements only partially assist agencies struggling to refine their Web sites for broader access to information according to federal Webmasters.

The accent on information delivery definitely is on the rise according to Carol Cini associate director for the Institute for Federal Printing and Publishing within the Government Printing Office.

Cini teaches a course called "An Introduction to Document Preparation for WWW Publishing" that lasts four days per session. "Where last year we had nine people signed up for a single class we now have 28. We are conducting more classes more often to try to accommodate federal agencies that want help " Cini said.However despite the increased interest it has been difficult for Webmasters to find tools to meet the new requirements forcing them to make do with the tools they have. The disadvantages of this approach can be apparent to Web site users.

For example the General Services Administration's Web site gives every "subject-matter content owner" a piece of turf to create and update pertinent information for public consumption. The upside is that GSA's Web site offers a tremendous amount of information. Governmental visitors who want to learn about per diem rates for example can click on a travel icon to find U.S. per diem rates listed by location. Others can locate catalogs available from the Consumer Information Center in Pueblo Colo.

But the downside of the GSA site is a lack of continuity because Web developers have used differing tools and approaches in their designs. GSA Webmaster Mark Kaprow maintains that he would like to bring some level of uniformity to GSA's Web site to make it more easily navigable. But for now developers will continue to use a variety of tools including Microsoft Corp.'s FrontPage JASC Inc.'s Paint Shop Pro Lotus Development Corp.'s Freelance Claris' Web Designer Adobe Photoshop and many others based on personal tastes. "I send new developers to the bookstore first to let them browse and learn about the tools that might best fit their needs " Kaprow explained.

HTML Conversion Lacking

According to Richard Kellett division director for the Emerging IT Applications Division within GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy there is an enormous need for better management of Web pages and documents.

Design tools that stress artistic features can detract from the agency's information-content goals. In general design tools should be easy to use require little or no special coding and enable the transfer and management of documents on the target server according to Kellett.

In particular agencies need better tools for converting standard electronic documents to the Hypertext Markup Language the standard format for displaying information on the Web. "We still spend too much time converting documents from word processing files to HTML files for use on the Internet " Kellett said.

While there are Web design tools that convert files to HTML Kellett said designers are still confined by the maximum-file-size limits of the Internet and the need to divide files into manageable chunks. That limitation and the addition of graphics can turn one document into 30 separate files. "No tools we've seen can do the conversion to HTML break a document into manageable sections and then maintain the entire document automatically " he said.

Transforming that document to run on different Web servers only adds to the confusion. If a developer creates a document using Word for Windows and the Web server is Unix-based that document first must be converted to HTML and then sent to the server where it must be rechecked tested and edited to make sure that it will run on the different operating system platform.

"Typically the tools that enable HTML translation will be 98 percent correct but there is no way to find the flaws in the remaining 2 percent without rereading and editing the entire document again " Kellett said.

Pushing Ahead

Despite the limitations of design tools federal agencies continue to push ahead with increasingly advanced Web page development that emphasizes information delivery.

One of the challenges federal agencies face is balancing the need for graphics and information. In the two years since the Department of Housing and Urban Development created its home page the agency has tried many different designs and techniques - "big graphics little graphics frames Java script - you name it " said Candis Harrison Webmaster for HUD.

But the agency has drastically scaled back the graphics of late opting for crisp topics and a cleaner layout. "We have a huge site and we've learned from experience that our audience just wants to get where they're going " Harrison said.

Like most federal agencies the emphasis of the General Accounting Office's Web site is on the distribution of agency documents - in this case GAO reports. This means the Webmaster must constantly update GAO's listings or index pages. Steve Palincsar GAO's Webmaster uses an ASCII text editor to do much of the Web page design.

To update the listings task GAO uses one of two approaches: Basic HTML documents - such as Comptroller General Decisions Daybook listings or job vacancy announcements - are re-created with Perl scripts - a Unix-based programming language - that read information into a directory from the title of each document and then create a listing page using the file names as Uniform Resource Locators and the captured text from the titles as the text to be displayed as a link.

For more recent reports generated in Adobe's PDF format - which is based on Adobe's ubiquitous PostScript format - pages are created off the Web using an in-house bibliographic database that generates a report that gets post-processed with Perl scripts into HTML.

Because GAO's reports are Adobe PostScript-based PDF is an easy choice that renders many HTML conversion and translation issues moot. Palincsar currently is working on a CGI script to allow people to submit job application information via a Web form as well.

Meanwhile some agencies are creating links to database engines as their Web sites grow. Pat Garvey director of the EPA's EnviroFacts Warehouse Team runs a 48G data warehouse on the Web that gives government educational and commercial users access to EPA data on facilities and programs.

Considered among the most advanced federal Web sites because of its data warehouse ties Garvey says EnviroFacts lets users query the site geographically or by facility name to uncover all types of regulatory information on the status of permits the use of pollutants and results of compliance inspections for any of 700 000 facilities regulated by the EPA.

Help on the Way

Some industry analysts say the problems Web designers face in converting and transforming documents for Web sites will decrease over the next year. It's largely a matter of keeping up with the breakneck pace of Web design enhancements. For instance the inclusion of Web page creation in such standard word processing software as Microsoft's Office 97 ought to make it far easier to use HTML as the format for converting documents said Chris Le Tocq a software analyst at Dataquest in San Jose Calif.

"The ability to create HTML code from Word documents really will help alleviate the conversion problem " Le Tocq said. And although many federal users and Web developers may not be aware of this enhancement they will be in the next six months he added.

For their part leading Web-design tool suppliers are working to help alleviate some of these problems as well. For example Lotus will launch the Java Bean Machine for its Domino Web server environment this summer.

"IBM and Lotus are clearly in the Java camp which we see as the best way to rid users of the transformation problem " said Alex Niehaus group marketing manager for Lotus. The Java Bean Machine enables nonprogrammers to create Java applications and applets using wizards or templates that write and compile the code automatically. And while most Java compilers start at $200 to $500 the Bean Machine will be priced well below $200 Niehaus added.

In the near future Microsoft also will incorporate more templates or style sheets to help Web designers build pages quickly without HTML programming knowledge. But Microsoft's biggest goal for its FrontPage design tool is to provide "dynamic HTML " which will take HTML beyond current 2-D layout to enable the layering of art elements and more precise positioning on a Web page said Chris Barker architectural engineer at Microsoft Federal.

There also will be support for data binding which will enable Web pages to serve as the front end to a database cache system residing on local PCs. The cache will serve as a temporary holding place for data so it is immediately accessible to the Web page rather than forcing the PC to go back to the primary database.

"Where the slowness of the Web frustrates everyone who has tried to download longer documents or graphics this enhancement will enable users to create a continuous connection which will cram more information onto their local machines during initial connection so that pages requested will appear instantly rather than waiting for the server to respond " Barker said.

Sean McKenna product marketing manager for Internet products at Adobe said Adobe will improve the Web publishing capability of its PageMill product to enable seamless uploading of documents which would address some of the problems of converting larger documents for use on Web sites.

-- DePompa is a free-lance writer based in Germantown Md.

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At A Glance

Status: Agency Webmasters who are viewing Web sites as key vehicles for delivering information to the public are looking for more capabilities than many tools can deliver.

Issues: While most tools emphasize Web page presentation agencies need tools that better automate the process of creating and managing HTML documents.

Outlook: Good. Key tool vendors expect to deliver new solutions within the coming year.

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