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.

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.

USA.gov adds 1.USA.gov URL shortener for civilian use

Last year, the United States General Services Administration (GSA) launched the Go.USA.gov URL shortener at the Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C. Today, USA.gov soft-launched a way for citizens to create shortened USA.gov URLs as well. Whenever someone uses Bit.ly (or any service that uses Bit.ly, like Tweetdeck or the Twitter app for iPhone) to shorten a .gov or .mil URL, the link will be converted to a short 1.USA.gov.

For those feeling a bit dizzied by acronyms, URL stands for “uniform resource locator.” A URL is the Web address, like, say, govfresh.com, that a citizen types into a Web browser to go to a site. Many URLs are long, which makes sharing them on Twitter or other mobile platforms awkward. As a result, many people share shortened versions. One of the challenges that face users is that, unless a citizen uses one of several tools to view what the actual hyperlink is below the link, he or she might be led astray or exposed to malicious code that was included in the original link.

This new service will make it easier for people to know when a short URL will direct them to a trustworthy official U.S. government site. “The whole idea is to improve people’s experience when dealing with government information online,” said Jed Sundwall, a contractor for USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov. “We keep USA.gov in the domain for usability reasons. It’s crystal clear, worldwide, that 1.USA.gov URLs point to trustworthy governmentt information.” Adriel Hampton talked with Jed Sundwall about Go.USA.gov on Gov 2.0 Radio last year. For more on how Go.USA.gov URLs work, watch Michele Chronister’s presentation from the last year’s Gov 2.0 Expo, below:

The new shortener began appearing online this Friday. According to Sundwall, ABC senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper was the first to use it when he linked to a PDF containing new unemployment information at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics: “For those asking follow-ups on unemployment, here’s the BLS link http://1.usa.gov/XUtpL

Tapper is not alone, as many others have used the 1.USA.gov URL shortener simply by using the tools there already knew. “The beauty is that Jake used it without knowing he was using it,” said Sundwall. “We’re trying making it easy for anyone to identify .gov information as it’s being shared online,” said Sundwall.


1.USA.gov FAQ

Following are the GSA’s answers to frequently asked questions about 1.USA.gov.

Why did we use 1.USA.gov when go.gov or 1.us.gov would be shorter?
Including USA.gov in the shortened URLs makes them more intuitive and meaningful to users worldwide. Many Internet users may not realize that .gov is the exclusive top-level domain of the U.S. government, and USA.gov adds valuable context to the short URLs.

What if I don’t want a 1.USA.gov URL?

You can replace 1.USA.gov with bit.ly or j.mp. For example 1.USA.gov/12345 will go to the same place as j.mp/12345 or bit.ly/12345.

Is Bit.ly owned by the Libyan government?

No. Bit.ly (@bitly is an American-owned company based in New York City. While .ly is the top level Internet domain assigned to Libya, this does not mean that Libya has any stake at all in Bit.ly, the ability to access Bit.ly’s data, or the ability to control Bit.ly’s servers. On the Quora website, Bit.ly’s CEO has addressed what would happen to Bit.ly if Libya were to shut off Internet access in Libya. Regardless, we use .gov URLs, and none of the servers that power this service (or any of Bit.ly’s servers) are located in Libya.

Who uses a similar service with Bit.ly?

C-SPAN: http://cs.pn
NY Times: http://nyti.ms
NPR: http://n.pr
Facebook: http://fb.me
Pepsi: http://pep.si
Economist: http://econ.st

What does this mean for Go.USA.gov?

We will still maintain Go.USA.gov as an option for government employees to use as a URL shortener, and Go.USA.gov URLs will continue to work.

Correction: an earlier version of this story referred to the new shortener as 1.GO.USA.gov, as opposed to the shorter version. We regret the error.