Bold but not brash
When Labor's Bureau of Economic Analysis gave its Web site a retooling, a chief concern was making sure users still trusted data that has the power to send bulls and bears raging on Wall Street.
When the world’s economy hangs on data from one government Web site, that site needs to look and be reliable.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis—the agency that tracks the U.S. gross domestic product, international trade and other vital financial statistics—made its recent Web redesign reflect that authoritative mission.
The bureau last month relaunched www.bea.gov
with 150 new pages in a uniform design, organized by national, international, regional and industrial reports. Visitors can select a format for data downloads to fit their client software and their accessibility needs. And for the first time, the bureau’s major electronic data collection application has a featured link on the home page.
BEA uses its Automated Survey Transmission and Retrieval (ASTAR) system to electronically collect 14 of the bureau’s 19 surveys of international investment data, said Stephen Holliday, chief of application development within the CIO’s office.
When the Government Paperwork Elimination Act was passed in 1998, “we knew we had to offer electronic filing options,” Holliday said. ASTAR now has a prominent link on the home page. Before the redesign, visitors needed a password just to find the link.
Sixty times each year, the bureau releases key statistics on the U.S. economy, said Rosemary B. Marcuss, BEA’s deputy director. Because financial markets, media, economists and large corporations all watch the pronouncements, the Web site must perform dependably.
“It’s very important for that first nanosecond when the growth rate comes out,” Marcuss said. BEA releases economic data between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. Eastern time on a set schedule.
BEA first went online in mid-1995. The public information office initially ran the site, which had only static pages of printed materials.
The early site grew without a particular style or overarching plan, Web manager Carol Kavanagh said. “It just hadn’t been analyzed from a sitewide perspective,” she said.
About two years ago, the CIO’s office started working with economic subject-matter experts to develop interactivity via Microsoft Active Server Pages and Cold Fusion from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco, so that users could customize their data downloads.
“You may not want GDP data going back to 1929,” even though BEA has it, Kavanagh said.
The site added a glossary defining gross domestic product and other terms. Other additions were an A-to-Z index, a searchable contact list and 27 pages of frequently asked questions.
Eagle Design & Management Inc. of Bethesda, Md., did the design and programming. “It’s often easier to hear recommendations from outside your group,” Kavanagh said.
She said the contractor did a good job of translating the bureau’s online mission into a consistent Web presence.
“Our look was formal, credible, educational and very classic,” she said. Now everything is reachable within two clicks of the home page.
“The marching orders were not to make anything harder for our regular users,” Kavanagh said.
BEA tested the prototype for usability by laypersons as well as economists, so as not to make wrong assumptions about economic or computer expertise.
About 80 percent of users visit the site once a month or less frequently, Kavanagh said. But it does attract a core of very frequent users.
In April, the busiest month of the last 12, BEA logged almost 3 million hits and 1.7 million total page views. Of the 141,080 unique visitors that month, 30,776 visited more than once.
Now that the new site is live, BEA plans to lock the design down for six months to a year.
“The culture here is slow to change,” bureau communications chief Karen D. Jeffries said.
A steering committee of managers met with the contractor at milestones to assure user acceptance and avoid imposing the transition in a heavy-handed manner. A team led by Holliday rolled out the site late in the day to avoid peak demand times.
BEA hosts the site on two dual-processor Compaq ProLiant 3000 servers running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 with Windows Load Balancing. “To my knowledge it’s never been taxed,” Holliday said of the server pair.
Interactive applications such as Active Server Pages use a Microsoft SQL Server 2000 database on a separate Windows 2000 platform with Windows Cluster Services.
The site connects to the Internet through four T1 lines, effectively yielding 6 Mbps, said Rick Martucci, chief of network and telecommunications. A separate T1 line stays dark most of the time but can serve as a backup connection if necessary.
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