Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Google, wikis could help feds increase access

It soon may be easier to google your government. But Wikipedia-style collaboration and information-sharing by government officials and citizens probably will take some time.

Those conclusions emerged from a Senate hearing Tuesday in which efforts to make basic public information more accessible and searchable online got a boost from open-government advocates, Google and several senators on the Homeland Security Committee.

Four out of five Internet users reach government Web sites through commercial search engines, but many federal sites are not configured to allow access that way, the Center for Democracy and Technology, a watchdog group, found in a survey.

"Today, too much public government information is effectively unavailable to the average American. It can't even be found in the federal government's own search engine,," said James Needham, a Google official who manages partnerships with governments.

Needham and Ari Schwartz of the democracy center told the committee that an easy technical solution for these search problems exists by using a Google protocol that California and six other states have adopted.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and chairman of the committee, is pushing an "e-government" bill, reauthorizing a 2002 law to make federal agencies upgrade their search capability and privacy policies. The committee recently approved the bipartisan bill without opposition, and it may go to the Senate before the end of the year.

"We have to eliminate the blocks to transparency and accountability," Lieberman said. He is also backing a Senate resolution to make all Congressional Research Service reports - which offer authoritative, unclassified data on everything from terrorism to pollution trends - available to the public.

While the subject of the hearing was wonky and occasionally technical, the problem of access can have a direct impact on many users. Thousands of veterans, for example, flooded Web sites and an 800 number last year when a security breach left electronic personal records for millions of veterans exposed.

And when the Interior Department considered removing the polar bear from the Endangered Species list, "there was huge interest, but when the public wanted to comment on that, they could not find it on any search engine," Schwartz said.

Karen Evans, who oversees information technology for federal agencies, testified that access has improved in the five years since the E-Government Act became law, citing the popularity of - the federal government's official Internet portal - which received 97 million visits last year.

"More needs to be done, and we're working with Google and others on search capability," Evans told the committee. "We don't want to create frustration for users."

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, testified that citizens and government officials could benefit from better interactive features, and that wiki technology, using fast information-sharing, was especially useful in crises such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and during southern California wildfires.

Intelligence analysts from 16 agencies, using three wikis not open to the public called Intellipedia, were able to quickly share information on explosive devices used against U.S. forces in Iraq, Wales said. Tom Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence, praised the method in April.

Wales said he would like to see more agencies use comment boards to foster communication between citizens and government - keeping in mind, though, that "you have to deal with spammers, crazy people and bad behavior."

Lieberman, who has worked on "e-government" issues for more than five years, said that he wants to prod agencies to improve but conceded that Congress' own Web site ( could be better. He complained that checking the status of legislation and tracking the votes of individual senators is not easy.

Lieberman also praised Wikipedia's quick, collaborative nature - something not easily found on Capitol Hill.

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