GAO debuts new online report technology

Study on a NOAA program is the debut offering

With the release of a report on slippages in NOAA’s next-generation weather satellite program, the Government Accountability Office is launching a new online E-Report to accompany its familiar PDF products.

Cost overruns have led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to scale back plans for its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series of weather satellites, and initial launch dates have been delayed for three years, raising the possibility of gaps in coverage if current satellites fail unexpectedly, GAO found.

NOAA responded that it will develop plans for operating with a single functioning satellite if needed, along with other operational options, including using foreign satellites.

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The report has been released in the traditional PDF format, which is available online, and also in a new Web-based format. The E-Report is identical in content to the PDF or physical versions of the report, but adds the easiier navigation of a website.

“The primary purpose is to make our reports easier to navigate and get at specific content,” said David Powner, GAO's director of information technology management issues and lead author of the report. “The PDF is not going away. People really like that.”

The PDF documents have table of contents with links to each section, but the E-Report is intended to provide more options for navigation through reports that can contain hundreds of pages of data. It also will give more options for using color and graphics, and for embedding audio and video content and links to outside data.

The E-Report program also is an effort to adapt to the growing use of smaller-screened mobile devices for accessing Web content, Powner said.

“So many followers are accessing our content with mobile devices,” he said. Report summaries formatted for the screens of mobile devices are available now, but the full reports are not easily readable on the devices. “This will allow more content to be accessed. We’re just trying to stay ahead of the curve in technology.”

The new E-Report, now in a pilot stage, is part of continuing adaptations by GAO to new technology. Back when the GAO was the General Accounting Office its products were primarily ink-on-paper reports that were delivered physically and piled on office shelves. That began to change in the early 2000s when online versions became available. Today, the switch away from print is almost complete, Powner said. “We still print some copies, but very few. Most folks are consuming electronically by PDF.”

GAO also sees the E-Report as an opportunity to regain some brand identity that was lost with the switch to PDF. The familiar blue-covered reports were identified with GAO, and when the reports went to a black and white online format the identification wasn’t that strong, Powner said. “This is an opportunity to get our brand identity back.”

Powner is the chair of a subcommittee guiding long-term evolution of GAO products. Commercial content management systems were evaluated for the E-Report, but the committee opted to gather more information on requirements through reader feedback before soliciting or acquiring a commercial tool.

“We just took our PDF and did our own internal mock-up for the pilot,” he said.

GAO plans to release about one report a month as an E-Report to gather feedback. The NOAA GOES-R report was chosen to launch the pilot in part because it was done for the House Science and Technology Committee, whose members and staff were open to looking at the new format.

The GOES-R series of satellites will replace two current families of satellites launched in 2009 and 2010, which will become fully operational in 2011 and 2015. Their operational lives will extend to 2016 and 2020. The first GOES-R satellite now is scheduled for launch in 2015, becoming fully operational in 2017. The overlapping of different generations provide backup coverage for the NOAA fleet.

Baseline plans for GOES-R in 2006 called for four satellites that would produce 81 data products at a cost of $6.2 billion through 2034. When the cost ballooned to $11.4 billion, plans were scaled back to two satellites producing 34 baseline data products and 31 optional products, at an estimated cost of $7.7 billion through 2028.

There are weaknesses in continuity plans in the event of satellite failures, GAO found.

“Until these weaknesses are addressed, NOAA faces a potential 12-month gap where it may not be able to provide critical geostationary data needed for predicting global and local weather events in the event of a satellite failure,” GAO concluded. The study also found that NOAA should work more closely with consumers of its data products to prioritize data needs and include them in continuity planning.

Send comments on the new E-Report format to GAO at

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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