The New ‘Google for Government Documents’
Ric Davis takes note of the commuter crowd — how it has morphed from juggling books and laptops to staring into cellphones and tablets.
“It’s like watching history unfold,” he said. “Everybody is sitting there with a mobile device.”
Then the daily Metro rider gets to work, where for 23 years he has overseen the modernization of the federal government’s publishing arm.
As the Government Publishing Office’s chief technology officer, Davis is tasked with using the latest tools to manage massive blocks of official information from the Congressional Record to the Federal Register and beyond.
Davis used what he saw on the go to focus efforts on developing a better mobile platform for the millions of people who download documents from the agency. It’s part of a bigger push to modernize the office’s online presence starting Wednesday by publicly beta testing govinfo.gov.
He’s worked on getting government’s records online since it began doing so under a very different technological period in 1993. That’s the year Congress gave the agency the OK to begin digitizing volumes of records — and before the Internet was part of everyday life.
The first documents the agency digitized were created by programs that predate Microsoft Word on a search engine that no longer exists, Davis said.
A user at the time had to zero-in on particular parts of plain text documents hundreds of pages long to find what they needed, Program Manager Lisa LaPlant said.
“Basically just a flat file system with a really rudimentary search,” LaPlant said. “Like really, really basic.”
A major overhaul in 2009 led to gpo.gov , where digital signatures and new authenticating measures were introduced — a move inspired by a report printed by the agency on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster that was widely publicized.
On govinfo.gov — which the Government Publishing Office’s spokesman declared “the Google for government documents” — users can access the Congressional Record, track the course of legislation or perhaps dive into a treasure trove of information specifically on President Gerald Ford.
Government geekery aside, anyone from the general public may punch out “Obamacare” and get a copy of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — the agency’s most popular document at 14 million downloads in the last six years.
Since 2009, the office has managed 2 billion downloads total — or nine downloads per second — by stakeholders across the country who consist of academics, lawyers, researchers and lawmakers.
The Government Publishing Office is a legislative agency but publishes information for all three branches of government. It recently started storing opinions from judges inside more than 100 federal courtrooms across the U.S.
Govinfo.gov will operate in beta testing mode for one year while the agency gathers feedback from users. A permanent website is expected in 2017.
Improving its online presence is the latest effort by the agency to transition into the digital age — but the office’s printers still hum and buzz on the first three floors of a building that takes up an entire city block just off Capitol Hill.
Thousands of pages on president’s budget are being prepared for publication next week on one floor.
On another, work on tickets to the inauguration has begun — minus the honoree’s name.
But moving to a digital-only platform is one more step toward the agency catching up with the times.
“That’s what people are starting to expect,” LaPlant said.
Contact Rahman at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter
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