Jan 28, 2009

Getting to Where the People Are

Ali at Sunlight Labs--a project of the Sunlight Foundation--worked up a redesign of usa.gov, the U.S. government official search portal. The ideas include a refresh to the visual design and navigation and adding new features to allow users to customize and personalize the content.

Folks at Sunlight Labs clearly put some thought behind their recommendations. I think that allowing users to select what's important to them and using zip code to help filter content would be fabulous. I especially like the idea of gathering and mashing up data from other agencies in a personalized usa.gov view.

But this doesn't really go far enough for me.

What if we untethered the information from government websites. Rather than create yet another personalized page--and let's face it, many people only interact with federal dot-gov websites around April 15th --I would much rather be able to incorporate government information in pages that I already use.

For example, government can make services and information available in a Google gadget, Netvibes widget, Yahoo App, or embedded in a Facebook page.

These are pages that people have already made an investment in--pages that are daily destinations for millions of Internet users. For me, I would rather see my student loan information when I am on my personal banking site. Or, if I opted to provide my zip code to personalize my iGoogle page, what about a tool that would feed me timely information about product recalls, storm warnings or eligibility for aid programs?

This isn't a new idea. Gartner released two reports in November 1987.
"The first-stop shop for almost anything on the Internet is a search engine, a personal home page, or a preferred home page that matches the consumer's needs and interests. This type of home page is likely to be provided--not by a government organization--but by an Internet player (such as Google, Yahoo or MSN), a media company (such as CNN or The New York Times), a telecom operator (especially for mobile devices), an investment firm, a parent association or a golf club."

These are all channels that consumers use to find Internet services and content nowadays - and Gartner suggests that consumers will expect to find e-government services through those channels too. So Gartner's conclusion is that governments "should make sure that their information, services and applications are accessible through a variety of different channels, some of which are not controlled or directly owned by government."--Read more on ReadWriteWeb.
Information is currently swirling around us, and we are grabbing the pieces that we want. Whether it's using Amazon reviews to research an item that you are looking for on Craigslist, or reading tweets to find links to reading recommended by your network, or using Wikipedia to navigate the Library of Congress site to find speeches for your report on the League of Nations (yes, my son really did this. He couldn't find the resources directly on LOC), we need to move beyond the "website" and begin thinking in terms of information.

Of course we will continue to have websites and web-based applications. But we need to think about getting the information and tools to where the people are and knocking down the walls of the Web site. And, by extension, the walls around government.

Smart people are already doing this. For example, the FBI has a most-wanted fugitive widget. Do you have other examples of dot-gov putting the content where the people are?

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