On the Frontier of Electronic Government

May 1996
CYBERSCAPE COLUMN

On the Frontier of Electronic Government

Many agencies have dipped their toes into cyberspace, setting up home pages on the World Wide Web that offer the public an electronic glimpse of their operations. But cyberspace veterans like the Geological Survey have established extensive Websites showing what the future of electronic government might look like.

USGS, the government's largest earth science research agency, has put together a site (http://www.usgs.gov), comprising about 100,000 Web pages contained on more than 70 servers throughout the country. It includes sites ranging from the Center for Coastal Geology to the Rocky Mountain Mapping Center to pages devoted to water resources in dozens of states.

For the casual Web surfer, the USGS site contains a host of fascinating data. In late March and early April, for example, the agency's Arizona district office put up a series of pages describing its project to conduct controlled flooding of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Users could access both historical information on streamflow and real-time data via satellite on the size and extent of the flooding. The Arizona office even conducted a contest for visitors to the site to predict how fast the flood crest would work its way through the canyon.

The main USGS page also includes an Ask-a-Geologist feature that enables users to get answers to basic geological questions. The questions are routed to USGS earth scientists, who respond via e-mail within a few days. The fine print on the page notes that certain questions, such as those with specific economic impact ("How much gold is left in the Homestake mine?) are off limits. And, USGS adds, "We encourage grade school and high school students to send in questions, but we can't write your reports for you!"

For students and teachers, the agency offers The Learning Web, a section of the site dedicated to education. This spring, The Learning Web focused on global environmental change, with information about the earth's development and satellite images of the Brazilian rain forest.

But the USGS site is more than just a collection of slick tools. The agency is using the Web to distribute critical information. Early this year, for example, when heavy rains led to flood threats on the East Coast, USGS made near real-time data about rising rivers available to federal, state and local agencies. Because it provides such services, USGS made sure to keep its Web site up and running during the recent federal shutdowns, when other federal servers went down.

In a typical month, the site servers process about 500,000 requests, making the USGS site one of the most popular in government.

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