America's Website Newly User-Friendly

The U.S. government's website got a face lift in the beginning of July. Want to find out how to renew your passport? Apply for debt relief? Buy national park tickets AND find the closest alternative fuel station? It's all there. Host Liane Hansen talks with David McClure of USA.gov about the site's new features.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

Do you want to find out if your iPad will get through airport security, or how to renew your passport? How about apply for debt relief, buy National Park tickets, and find the closest alternative fuel station? All you have to do is type seven familiar characters: U-S-A dot G-O-V.

In the beginning of July, the U.S. government's own website got a facelift, and perhaps the most talked about part of that reworking is the U.S. government's app store. There are apps for calculating your body mass index, checking to see if a product has been recalled, and finding out what the UV index is that day.

David McClure was in charge of the re-design. He's the associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services and Communications at the General Services Administration, and he joins us in the studio. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. DAVID MCCLURE (Associate Administrator, Office of Citizen Services and Communications, General Services Administration): Thanks, Liane.

HANSEN: Wow, thats a mouthful of a title.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: We should explain that USA.gov is not really an apps store.

Mr. MCCLURE: Right. USA.gov has been in existence for almost a decade. And it's been the front door for citizens into government, so you can actually search for products and services and information. The new feature we've added is what you alluded to - is a grouping of mobile applications that we think citizens might find of high value. They can find some of those on existing agency websites, but we're trying to simplify the access to the application, and organize it in a way that they can really find them quite quickly.

HANSEN: Now, the difference this time is there had been apps online, but it was only for federal employees. Now, this is for the public.

Mr. MCCLURE: This is for public. The great thing about this is that we, in the process of putting up this initial set of applications, have discovered over a hundred more are being developed or planned in the federal government alone. So we can just see a constant stream of applications becoming available to citizens in a very, very easy-to-find, easy-to-use manner.

HANSEN: We mentioned renewing a passport, or you can go - there's a TSA app where you can get all your answers if you're flying. What are some of the other apps, maybe some of the more unusual ones?

Mr. MCCLURE: Well, TSA has been of primary interest because it does provide information about airports, but it has wait times that are crowd-sourced for each airport - which is interesting. So these are people getting online saying Im in line, it's approximately taking 10 minutes to get through it. Thats how that site is actually populated with data - is through people standing in line, updating it on a constant basis.

The product recall app is designed to try to address the need of a citizen as a consumer buying a product in a store, wondering whether thats the baby carriage, or thats the product that they heard about on the evening news that had been recalled, but they dont have all of that information at their fingertips.

The application is still in the early stages. In some cases, you actually do have to go on the Internet and search. What we're trying to move to is using a mobile device like the iPhone to scan in the barcode on the product, and it would instantly check against product recall lists across the government. We're not there yet.

HANSEN: Are you soliciting for new applications for this site?

Mr. MCCLURE: Well, several hundred more are planned or being developed, so we see this as just a drum roll of trying to roll out applications.

The thing we dont want to do is just flood this website with applications that somebody thinks, this sounds cool. We put it through a test, or a criteria, to put it on USA.gov: how practical is it, how simple is it, how much could it be used in the daily life of the citizen? Because when we're on a mobile device - we're in a taxicab, we're on a bus, we're waiting at the airport - and Im trying to use my time quickly, and thats the environment we need to make sure that we're responding to.

HANSEN: Not to be flip, but can I give you a scenario? Would it, do you think, be possible at some point in time to be able to, say, request my information from the FBI because of the Freedom of Information Act? Is there an app for that?

Mr. MCCLURE: Well, it's a touchy area. Obviously this is, I think, one of our challenges in the government information space now, are the privacy issues. I think thats something thats, from a policy perspective we've got to get worked out before the technology solution goes in place.

But another scenario might be that, Im actually interested in knowing where my application is in the process of being approved for a Social Security disability benefit, for a veteran's disability benefit, or for a small-business loan application. Or, where am I in the higher-education loan process?

What we'd like to do is to allow the public to be able to go on to the Internet or the Web or a mobile application, and have access to that kind of real-time, here's where I am. And I think that would really provide some high value.

HANSEN: David McClure is the associate administrator of the General Services Administration. He joined us in the studio. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. MCCLURE: Thanks so much, Liane.

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