U.S. government launches online traffic analytics dashboard for federal websites

There are roughly 1,361 .gov domains* operated by the executive branch of the United States federal government, 700-800 of which are live and in active use. Today, for the first time, the public can see how many people are visiting 300 executive branch government domains in real-time, including every cabinet department, by visiting analytics.usa.gov.

According to a post on the White House blog, the United States Digital Service “will use the data from the Digital Analytics Program to focus our digital service teams on the services that matter most to the American people, and analyze how much progress we are making. The Dashboard will help government agencies understand how people find, access, and use government services online to better serve the public – all while protecting privacy.  The program does not track individuals. It anonymizes the IP addresses of all visitors and then uses the resulting information in the aggregate.”

On Thursday morning, March 19th, tax-related services, weather, and immigration status are all popular. Notably, there’s an e-petition on the White House WeThePeople platform listed as well, adding data-driven transparency to what’s popular there right now.
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Former United States deputy chief technology officer Nick Sinai is excited about seeing the Web analytics data opened up online. Writing for the Harvard Shorenstein Center, where he is currently a fellow, Sinai adds some context for the new feature:

“Making government web performance open follows the digital services playbook from the new U.S. Digital Services,” he wrote. “Using data to drive decisions and defaulting to open are important strategies for building simple and useful citizen-facing digital services. Teal-time and historical government web performance is another example of how open government data holds the promise of improving government accountability and rebuilding trust in government.”

Here’s what the U.S. digital services team says they’ve already learned from analyzing this data:

Here’s what we’ve already learned from the data:

  • Our services must work well on all devices. Over the past 90 days, 33% all traffic to our sites came from people using phones and tablets. Over the same period last year, the number was 24%. Most of this growth came from an increase in mobile traffic. Every year, building digital services that work well on small screens becomes more important.
  • Seasonal services and unexpected events can cause surges in traffic. As you might expect, tax season is a busy time for the IRS. This is reflected in visits to pages on IRS.gov, which have more than tripled in the past 90 days compared with the previous quarter. Other jumps in traffic are less easy to predict. For example, a recently-announced settlement between AT&T and the Federal Trade Commissiongenerated a large increase in visits to the FTC’s website. Shortly after the settlement was announced, FTC.gov had four times more visitors than the same period in the previous year. These fluctuations underscore the importance of flexibility in the way we deploy our services so that we can scale our web hosting to support surges in traffic as well as save money when our sites are less busy.
  • Most people access our sites using newer web browsers. How do we improve digital services for everyone when not all web browsers work the same way? The data tells us that the percentage of people accessing our sites using outdated browsers is declining steadily. As users adopt newer web browsers, we can build services that use modern features and spend less time and money building services that work on outdated browsers. This change will also allow us to take advantage of features found in modern browsers that make it easier to build services that work well for Americans with disabilities, who access digital services using specialized devices such as screen readers.

If you have ideas, feedback or questions, the team behind the dashboard is working in the open on Github.

Over the coming months, we will encourage more sites to join the Digital Analytics Program, and we’ll include more information and insights about traffic to government sites with the same open source development process we used to create the Dashboard. If you have ideas for the project, or want to help improve it, let us know by contributing to the project on GitHub or emailing digitalgov@gsa.gov.

That last bit is notable; as its true all of the projects that 18F works on, this analytics dashboard is open source software.

There are some interesting additional details in 18F’s blog post on how the analytics dashbard was built, including the estimate that it took place “over the course of 2-3 weeks” with usability testing at a “local civic hacking meetup.”

First, that big number is made from HTML and D3, a Javascript library, that downloads and render the data. Using open standards means it renders well across browsers and mobile devices.

Second, 18F made an open source tool to manage the data reporting process called “analytics-reporter” that downloads Google Analytics reports and transforms that data into JSON.

Hopefully, in the years ahead, the American people will see more than the traffic to .gov websites: they’ll see concrete performance metrics like those displayed for the digital services the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services team publishes at gov.uk/performance, including uptime, completion rate and satisfaction rate.

In the future, if the public can see the performance of Heathcare.gov, including glitches, or other government digital services, perhaps the people building and operating them will have more accountability for uptime and quality of service.

National Security Archive finds 40% E-FOIA compliance rate in federal government agencies

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For Sunshine Week 2015, the National Security Archive​ conducted an audit of how well 165 federal government agencies in the United States of America comply with the E-FOIA Act of 1996. They found that only 67 of them had online libraries that were regularly updated with a significant number of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. The criteria for the 165 agencies were that they had to have a chief Freedom of Information Officer and components that handled more than 500 FOIA requests annually.

Almost a decade after the E-FOIA Act, that’s about a 40% compliance rate. I wonder if the next U.S. Attorney General or the next presidential administration will make improving on this poor performance priority. It’s important for The United States Department of Justice​ to not only lead by example but push agencies into the 21st century when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act.

It would certainly help if Congress passed FOIA reform.

On that count, the Archive highlights a relevant issue in the current House and Senate FOIA reform bills in Congress: the FOIA statute states that documents that are “likely to become the subject of subsequent requests” should be published electronic reading rooms:

“The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy defines these records as “frequently requested records… or those which have been released three or more times to FOIA requesters.” Of course, it is time-consuming for agencies to develop a system that keeps track of how often a record has been released, which is in part why agencies rarely do so and are often in breach of the law. Troublingly, both the current House and Senate FOIA bills include language that codifies the instructions from the Department of Justice.

The National Security Archive believes the addition of this “three or more times” language actually harms the intent of the Freedom of Information Act as it will give agencies an easy excuse (“not requested three times yet!”) not to proactively post documents that agency FOIA offices have already spent time, money, and energy processing. We have formally suggested alternate language requiring that agencies generally post “all records, regardless of form or format that have been released in response to a FOIA request.”

This is a point that Members of Congress should think through carefully as they take another swing at reform. As I’ve highlighted elsewhere, FOIA requests that industry make are an important demand signal to show where data with economic value lies. (It’s also where the public interest tends to lie, with respect to FOIA requests from the media.)

While it’s true that it would take time and resources to build and maintain a system that tracks such requests by industry, there should already be a money trail from the fees paid to the agency. If FOIA reform leads to modernizing how it’s implemented, perhaps tying FOIA.gov to Data.gov might finally take place. The datasets are the subject of the most FOIA requests are the ones that should be prioritized for proactive disclosure online.

Adding a component that identifies which data sets are frequently requested, particularly periodically, should be a priority across the board for any administration that seeks to “manage information as an asset.” Adding the volume and periodicity of requests to the expanding national enterprise data inventory might naturally follow. It’s worth noting, too, that reform of the FOIA statute may not be necessary to achieve this end, if the 18F team working on modernizing FOIA software worked on it.

The legacy of Google+: Google’s Internet backbone for digital identity

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The news that Google would be splitting Google+ into Streams, Photos and communication has already led to dozens of articles opining about what went wrong in the search giant’s pursuit of social media. Someday, Google Hangouts and Google Talk may become part of a wireless service from Google.

One challenge for judging its success or failure is that the majority of media accounts and analysis of Google+ always compared it to Facebook. That comparison is not entirely unreasonable, given reports about how Google executives were concerned about the rise of the world’s largest social network in 2011. If Google was trying to “play catchup” after having missed social, and Facebook is the leader, how can someone not compare the efforts?

If you looked at Google+ in terms of the ability of its social stream to attract and retain the attention and participation of a billion users for an hour every day, as Facebook does, it’s hard to argue that it succeeded. If you compared the time people spend on Plus +1’ing, sharing and commenting to Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr or Twitter, Google’s effort paled.

No doubt because of my former colleague Edd Dumbill, however, I’ve always thought of Google+ as a social backbone for all of Google’s products, not simply a destination. Google+ was a way of associating an identity for hundreds of millions of users across applications and services.

When viewed in that context, it may be that Google+ is much more successful than many people have yet realized: according to Federal News Radio, the U.S. General Services Administration has quietly added Google to the list of identity providers that the federal government has authorized to provide secure digital credentials for logging into digital services. Today, it looks like Google will be be part of the federated identity strategy that could allow U.S. citizens to renew passports online, download personal heath data and reserve campground sites in the years ahead.

Even if “Streams” does end up going away, look for Google’s identity layer to endure and mature across all of its products and services, from Documents to Maps. In 2015, being able to confirm that you’re not a dog on the Internet can sometimes be useful, too.

[Image Source: JanRain social login trends]

In the wake of scandal, the State of Oregon seeks to restore trust through publishing public records

or-state-sealIn a fascinating turn of events, rainy Oregon is embracing sunlight online after a scandal that led to the resignation of its governor. After governor Kate Brown was sworn in as the 38th governor of the state of Oregon, replacing fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, her administration chose to try to restore public trust by not only posting public records requests online but including the authors, status and a downloadable link to the records themselves, once fulfilled. The records only go back to January 15th, 2015, with a note that requests made prior to that date are “still being processed.”

The City of Oakland’s public records system, built by Code for America, does the same thing but this appears to set a new bar for state government that’s unmatched in the United States of America. As has been reported elsewhere, exemptions to Oregon’s public records laws mean that this website will be no panacea, but it looks like progress from 3000 miles away in snowy Cambridge.

As Kirk Johnson reported for the New York Times, Brown’s record includes open government work while she was a state legislator, where, as Senate Majority Leader, she worked to reform Oregon’s ethics law and helped to enact legislation that created an online campaign finance database.

“…throughout my 24 years in public service, I have also sought to promote transparency and trust in government, working to build confidence that our public dollars are spent wisely,” she said, in her inaugural speech.

Later in her remarks, Governor Brown said that “we must seize this moment to work across party lines to restore the public’s trust. That means passing meaningful legislation that strengthens the capacity and independence of the Government Ethics Commission. We also must strengthen laws to ensure timely release of public documents.”

On that count, it’s notable that two of the records requests that have been posted for download involve Cynthia Hayes, the fiancee of former Governor Kitzhaber who was at the center of the scandals that led to his resignation. One comes from Margaret Olney, who is quite likely the same Margaret Olney who served in Oregon’s Department of Justice. The other requester was Alejandra Lazo, who co-authored a Wall Street Journal article on former Governor Kitzhaber’s resignation. In an interesting sidenote, the records for both responses were uploaded to Dropbox.

If you know of another state that meet or exceeds this standard for digital transparency, or have experience or feedback regarding the quality or importance of the public records posted by Oregon, please let us know in a comment.

Emily Shaw, the national policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, said on Twitter that she has not seen any other state’s public records system exceed this standard of transparency.