Web Leaders Seek More Searchable Government

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

These days you can Google just about anything, from your favorite celebrity's pet to your boss's middle name. But using the biggest search engine to get information about the government often falls short.

That's what leaders from Google and Wikipedia plan to tell the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs today, urging Congress to require federal agencies to make their Web sites, records and databases more searchable.

"It could be unintentional oversight or incompetence," said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center of Democracy and Technology, which plans to release a report today with OMB Watch, a watchdog group, that shows that basic government information often does not show up in results provided by search engines run by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Ask.com.

Today's hearing comes nearly five years after the E-Government Act required government agencies to make information more accessible electronically. The law is scheduled to be reauthorized soon.

According to the report, simple queries -- about, say, small-farm loans, or visitation rights for grandparents -- miss critical information because many agencies do not organize their Web sites so they can be easily indexed by search engines. Some agencies embed codes in their sites that make certain pages invisible to search engines.

This means searchers often must click through an agency's home page to find relevant sites. That makes it more difficult to track down details about Maryland gun laws or Barney, the White House dog, Schwartz said.

Four out of five Web surfers use search engines to find information, usually bypassing a site's home page unless the page appears in the search results, said John Lewis Needham, manager of public-sector content partnerships for Google.

Needham has spent the past 18 months working with agencies to make their online presence more Googlable. The Internet giant is also working with states to let people search databases to find, for example, licensing records, consumer complaints and financial transactions. Virginia and the District have partnered with Google.

The biggest hurdle agencies face in sharing information with one another and with citizens is not the technology but rather how the agencies organize information, said Karen Evans, who oversees the e-government program for the Office of Management and Budget. OMB also must protect the privacy of people listed in the hundreds of millions of records on file, she said.

Schwartz said privacy should not be a concern for making these databases easier to access, because all of the information in question is already public data that is online, even if it's not readily visible to Web searchers.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, will also testify before the panel today, his first Capitol Hill appearance. Making government documents more readily available will help Wikipedia, a large user-written encyclopedia, to be more accurate and valuable.

He also wants to help federal agencies develop their own "wikis," or self-written entries.

"It's really important for the notion of public participation for [agencies] to be striving to be as open as possible," he said.

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