It seems like just yesterday that the Bureau of Public Affairs (PA) developed the internet precursor to the state.gov website with a text-only “gopher” site through the Federal Depository Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). That was in the fall of 1994, 20 years ago. Digital info dissemination was in its infancy at the Department. Wang PCs still littered our desks, and most departments clung to hard copy reports, magazines, brochures, and flyers for the bulk of their information production. Indeed, an earlier incarnation of what is now PA’s Office of Website Management straddled both print and digital for a few years before we finally gave up on hard copy and went full steam ahead into the wild, wild web.
In January 1995, our first true website design was launched, again through UIC, with an almost Google-esque home page design simplicity. Two years later, in April 1997, the site was redesigned with a greater focus on the public user, but the site was still hard coded. Then in January 2001, the site was completely restructured and redesigned to increase usability. A state-of-the-art content management system (CMS) was launched, making state.gov one of the first Federal government websites to use a CMS. And saying farewell to our compadres at UIC, we began using a commercial web service provider for hosting.
Features we now take for granted came along during various upgrades. For example, static video streaming was added in 2002, and in 2004 we added redundant cache sites for security and stability of the site, and implemented RSS feeds. Digital asset management systems for audio and video were incorporated starting in 2006, and a new email subscription service launched in 2007. In 2009, we launched a major upgrade of the search function to include “faceted navigation,” helping end users more readily find the material they seek in our vast library.
We’ve been fortunate in PA to have been able to focus on what the public user needed, rather than being bogged down creating “vanity sites” that don’t serve the public in any meaningful way. This freedom went a long way toward helping us be creative and innovative, thus keeping state.gov fresh and useful to the public. GSA’s web council and other government techies have provided invaluable guidance.
In 2010, m.state.gov was launched to provide top categories of state.gov’s information on many hand-held devices. In 2011, “My State Department” was launched, which allows users to tailor content to their specific topics of interest. As apps gained rapid acceptance in the mobile world, PA kept pace, and in 2011, released the Smart Traveler iPhone app in conjunction with the Bureau of Consular Affairs -- the Department’s first official iPhone app. Later iterations were also available for Android. And as the mobile world continued to evolve at a stunning pace, PA recognized the need to make Department information available on virtually any mobile device, and released a responsive design of m.state.gov that adapts to the requirements of the widest variety of mobile devices.
In 2012, the Human Rights Report “reader” was released, allowing users to compare individual country reports. This same reader was then made available for the International Religious Freedom Reports, with additional enhancements to both added later.
Hitching our star to the President’s Digital Government Strategy, we’re now moving to open source for our CMS. The first website from the state.gov family to be created using the open source CMS was for the Overseas Buildings office. A second site has now launched for the Office of the Inspector General. Lessons learned from these proof-of-concept sites are helping to inform the migration of the main state.gov site. At the same time, the Select State.gov Data (SSD) API has been released to unlock the first tranches of state.gov data to researchers, developers, and, really, to anyone in the general public who has an interest in accessing and using Department information in a creative and unencumbered manner. SSD includes the Secretary’s travel, U.S. bilateral relations fact sheets, daily appointment schedules, Trafficking in Persons Reports, and the State by State map.
Along with opening up our content, we’re also working to more seamlessly meld social media to traditional web. Let us know how we’re doing in the comment section below.
You can read about other government sites celebrating milestones this year here.
About the Author: Janice Clark serves as the Director of the Office of Website Management in the Bureau of Public Affairs.
Editor's Note: This entry is also featured on state.gov.