Federal Web sites good; need tuning
- By L. Scott Tillett, L. Scott Tillett
- May 18, 1997
Information provided by agencies on the Internet stands to have a radical impact on citizens' daily lives and education but more work remains said panelists and members of the Congressional Internet Caucus at a hearing held May 13. A likely next step is for members of Congress to survey agencies' World Wide Web offerings.
Dozens of agencies - from the Interior Department to NASA - allow public access to information via their sites on the Web but the quality scope and usefulness of that information varies widely.
Internet caucus member Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said the next step to be taken after Tuesday's hearing should be to find out where federal agencies are in terms of the information they provide via the Internet and to find areas in which agencies can cooperate. "Can one [agency] help the other in terms of an example?" Eshoo asked.
Panelists and members of Congress drove home the point that information from agencies already is making its mark.
Information provided on the Web "will turn a nonparticipating student into a participating student " said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) a member of the caucus. Burns said government information posted on the Web may actually serve to increase traffic at libraries as students get turned on to learning.
Burns' supposition was echoed by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. His library's National Digital Library - with its American Memory collection of on-line images and recordings of historical documents and events - has quickly become one of the most popular federal spots on the Web (www.loc.gov) having won accolades from Time magazine and the Great American Web Site a citizen's guide to government treasures on the Web.
"We think [posting of information by the federal government] is a very important thing that is both educational and inspirational " Billington said explaining that information posted on the Web could make children more eager book readers.
Keeping children's interest may be a challenge but Billington said the library - the largest storehouse of recorded knowledge in the world -has a plan to keep adding content expanding the National Digital Library from its current 350 000 items to 5 million items by 2000.
The site is representative of a broadening role of federal information on the Web. "This is not just for scholars. This is for the American citizen the American taxpayer " Billington said. The library's main constituent over the decades has been Congress not the citizen.
But the proliferation of the Internet has changed that and more agencies are scrambling to provide meaty information to citizens - sometimes with dire consequences. The Social Security Administration for example recently reeled under public outcry that its on-line service for providing personal earnings information and benefit estimates did not offer enough privacy or security.
"Their interest was very good but they hadn't thought out some of the larger issues " Eshoo said. "You have to find a new way to do it.... You learn as you go along." Other agencies are providing juicy content with less controversy.
"I think [the federal government] has done a fantastic job " said panelist Srinija Srinivasan manager for Internet search-engine company Yahoo! Inc. when asked about the government's efforts to provide good Internet content.
"There's of course always room for more " Srinivasan said. She cited NASA the Library of Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission as some of the more noteworthy federal agencies providing information on the Web.
Srinivasan said that by allowing citizens to browse millions of records documents and images agencies help eliminate a common problem that citizens face when seeking information from the government: knowing in advance exactly what document they are looking for. "I never would have known what to ask for before."