Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Government Service Point and Search Quality

Last Thursday I attended the fifth Canberra Web Standards Group meeting at the "Bunker Theatre", under the Department of the Environment and Heritage. This featured Peter Alexander, Team Leader, Online Development, Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) and Dr David Hawking, from the company Funnelback and the CSIRO ICT Centre.

Peter Alexander, Team Leader, Online Development, Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) talked on "The impact of the e-government strategy and development of the Australian Government Online Service Point". The federal government is going beyond just providing a home page to provide more personalized services. At the same time they are trying to break down the government department based "silos" of services and information. Peter was quite brave to take on a room full of departmental web masters and tell them that from now on government wide information campaigns would use the one home page address, not one for each campaign. Departmental level programs would still be under the department's web site, but would be accessible from the central web address as well.

As I outlined from the AGIMO "e-Government Update" in June, a user id and password will be added to the home page allowing citizens (and small businesses) to access government services in a more integrated way. The exact details of what will be provided are still being works out. I asked if paid advertising would be allowed on the site, as this could offset the cots and provide a useful service (if carefully done). My question was met with laughter from the back of the room, but Peter said this had not been ruled out.

One flaw in the AGIMO strategy is the lack of integration with state and local governments (who are the ones which provide the bulk of government services). Peter replied that they want to get the federal level sorted out first, but there may be some pilots with state government. One entertaining example was a "report-a-pothole" web site, because the general public has no idea which bit of road is the responsibility of local, state or federal government.

Dr David Hawking, from the company Funnelback and the CSIRO ICT Centre talked about "Measuring, optimizing and comparing search result quality". Dr Hawking is a world authority on web search engines, the creator of the technology behind Funnelback and trained some of the clever people at Microsoft and Google. He has come up with a technique (and software) to test public search engines (such as Google) and to tune those used in organizations, such as the Australian Government's service point.

Like all good ideas the way the testing works sounds obvious, but only in retrospect, after a decade of work. What is perhaps moire interesting than tuning the technical settings on a company (or government) search engine, is to use the test results to see how the actual content of the web site should be changed. Dr Hawking used the example of where a query failed because the everyday words the public were searching for were not in the more technically written government documents.

ps: Funnelback provided a lucky door prize for the event. I joining said I was the only one eligible to win it as everyone else was from government department. At the draw I won it! :-)

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