The Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration think the fourth time is the charm for USA.gov.
After multiple attempts to improve the search capabilities of the government’s Web entry point over the last 10 years, GSA bought the use of Microsoft’s Bing search engine and improved upon it.
“A lot of the technology underneath it is not just Bing, we have built a structured search capability on top of Bing,” says Dave McClure, GSA’s associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at a press briefing earlier this week.
“It’s the most powerful government related search engine you can find now. If you compare results of a Google search on government topic to what you find on this website, you will find ours is more relevant.”
GSA and OMB announced Friday the launch of the redesigned site and the government’s first steps into the mobile apps revolution. McClure says the cost to bring in Bing and redesign USA.gov was for $280,000.
GSA has tried time and again to improve the search capability of USA.gov, but has struggled to make it easier for the public to search more than 24,000 federal websites.
The White House first launched a governmentwide portal, called at that time Firstgov.gov, in September 2000 using a search engine from Inktomi Corp. free of charge.
GSA switched two years later to use search technology from Fast Search & Transfer.
Then in 2006, GSA moved to Vivisimo Inc.’s clustering technology and Microsoft Corp.’s MSN search tool. In January 2007, GSA changed the portal’s name to USA.gov.
Now three years later, GSA is trying again, and this time it’s led by not just the need to search, but how search has evolved.
“The new USA.gov is a site that has been engineered with the American people in mind in terms of how people access information,” says Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer.
“We are trying to close the technology gap between how the American people access information in their day-to-day lives versus what they confront when they deal with their government.”
The site now has a much cleaner look, and offers suggestions as you type your topic into the search engine. The results look very similar to what one would find from other commercial search engines, whether Google, Bing or Yahoo!
Part of the reason for the updated look and search is OMB’s desire to change the perception of government.
“Trust in government has plummeted steadily from post World War II highs, according to Pew Center,” says Jeff Zients, OMB’s deputy director for management and chief performance officer. “About two-thirds of Americans believe that when something is run by government it is usually inefficient and wasteful.”
He says the public will have a better view of government if their interaction with it is positive.
“The new USA.gov and the launch of mobile applications make government services faster, easier and more user friendly,” Zients says. “They are important steps in serving the public at what are 21st Century customer standards.”
As a part of the USA.gov redesign, OMB and GSA also are making available 18 mobile applications for a variety of platforms, from Apple’s iPhone to Google’s Droid to RIM’s Blackberry.
The mobile applications range from software to check the UV Index and air quality from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Transportation Security Administration’s My TSA program to help answer common questions about air travel to the Recalls.gov program about products that have been found to have problems.
Kundra demonstrated how the Recalls.gov app works. He used a Droid phone to scan a barcode of a children’s product with the phone’s camera. The app went to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s database and checked the barcode against recalls. The database provided information back on the phone about the product, including a picture and information about why it was recalled.
“These apps are being made available as part of the launch,” Kundra says. “Some of these apps have existed and some are new apps. Where the government is headed is recognizing the American people, the way they access information and demand services, are no longer on a website that’s tethered to an agency, but actually on their mobile devices. We’ve seen a huge growth in mobile computing.”
He adds that agencies will spend money to deploy mobile apps based on their mission needs. Kundra adds that he also expects other companies, non-government organization and the general public to develop apps as well using data from Data.gov.
OMB says as of now the third party apps will not be available on USA.gov, but Kundra says they are talking to the legal folks to figure out how to make the third party software available.
In the mean time, Kundra says OMB is working with mobile app companies to create a category to let people browse a government apps, similar to gaming or music.
The current set of mobile apps may only work on one platform, but Kundra says over time all of the software tools will be available on all platforms.
OMB decided to go down the path of mobile apps despite the fact that a recent Nielsen survey found that about 21 percent of the public are using smartphones as of the end of 2009. Nielsen reports that the number of people using smartphones is growing tremendously and by mid-to-late 2011, about half of the public with phones will use something similar to an iPhone, Droid or Blackberry.
“We are in a difficult budget environment and we need to do more with less money,” Zients says. “The ability to unlock valuable government information and make it accessible to the American people is a very good way to do more with less.”
Kundra adds mobile phones sales are far outpacing desktop computers sales and the government needs to give people access to services in the way they used to doing business.
“This is not just an incremental change, but a step function jumping 10 years forward,” Zients says about the changes to USA.gov and the introduction of mobile apps.
“We are just at the very beginning of an unbelievably steep curve in terms of the types of applications and the different platforms. I think we will all look back a year, 2-3 years down the road and say ‘Wow, look at the number of applications, the platform diversity and most of importantly, the ability of the American people to access government information that is useful and real time.'”
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