Red, White, and You
Did you know that Uncle Sam podcasts? It's true. From the Air Force, to Congress, to the State Department, the U.S. government has started using the same cool new technologies the rest of us use. In fact, the recent space shuttle Discovery mission was a success not only because it was the first shuttle trip since the 2003 Columbia tragedy; it also marked the first podcast from space.
Electronic government, aka e-government. It's like e-commerce or e-business, although far less known and not nearly as glamorous. But it should come as no surprise that, love it or hate it, the government, like everyone else with access to the Internet, is trying to take advantage of the modern online world. Heck, the government invented the Internet.
The White House itself has a fairly good Web site, replete with RSS feeds and, yes, podcasts of the president's weekly addresses. And you can spend hours noodling around NASA's site for everything from news about the International Space Station to some of the most stunning free images available on the Net.
The Word From on High
But pretty Web sites are just the tip of the iceberg. President George W. Bush has made it a priority for government agencies to use the Internet to operate more efficiently and better serve the country's citizens. His so-called E-Gov initiative lays out specific areas where he and his staff expect feds to make better use of technology--from making it easier for you to apply for loans online to providing unified information sources.
Now, not everything has gone smoothly. Sometimes Congress doesn't give agencies all the money they think they need for E-Gov programs. But there are still many good and useful government sites and services for you to take advantage of. Start by visiting the following sites. After all, whether you're a Democrat, Republican, or none of the above, you paid for them.
FirstGov.gov: Any exploration of the U.S. government online starts at FirstGov, the nation's official portal. Nothing particularly glamorous here, and as you might expect, the sprawling government has a sprawling site. If you know what you're looking for, it's often easier to go directly to the source, such as IRS.gov for advice on your taxes. But FirstGov has some excellent resources. After Hurricane Katrina, it became a central source for important information. And it's a good place to start if you want to take part in government auctions or obtain a new Social Security card.
Free File: Speaking of the Internal Revenue Service, making it easy to file tax returns online is a government priority. And although the IRS itself is not allowed to offer filing tools or services (it can't compete with commercial providers), its Free File site gives good instructions and can hook you up with IRS-approved partners.
GovLoans.gov and GovBenefits.gov: Looking for ways to pay for college? Help is online. On first blush, neither of these sites is very impressive, until you realize they pull together information from several distinct government departments in one place. That's no easy task. Both are exceptional at explaining the types of assistance available, and they can walk you through interactive questionnaires to learn if you're eligible for loans or benefits.
Grants.gov: Like GovLoans and GovBenefits, Grants.gov is a clearinghouse of information, in this case on more than 1,000 grant programs from 26 government agencies. Got some critical research you want to perform? Grants.gov not only tells you what money might be available to get you started, it also helps you apply and track the status of your grant application.
USAJobs: Ever considered working for Uncle Sam? Then check out USAJobs, the Monster of government employment sites. In fact, the folks who run Monster will also be running USAJobs for the next several years. If you use Monster already, you'll recognize features like the ability to create an online resume. Eventually, you'll be able to fill out a job application and shuttle it into the avenues of power.
Recreation.gov: This site is a work in progress, but it's on its way to being a convenient source for campers and others who like to get outside. Right now the site offers a bunch of information about the nation's parks and park services. The goal is to provide a single location for reserving space at any national park, such as Yellowstone. The site can already take reservations for several parks, and more will come online in the future.
Interior Department Webcams: It's probably more fun than anything else, but while you're trying to decide what national park to visit, check out this collection of Webcams to see the view. Some work sporadically; others have multiple views. All let you in on the latest weather conditions at places like the Grand Canyon.
NASA Satellite Tracking: Of all the things you can do at NASA's Web site, monitoring things like the space station using real satellite data is one of the coolest. The NASA Satellite Tracking site offers several applets you can download and run for checking out what's moving around in the night sky--and beyond. Note: A broadband connection would be useful.
NASA World Wind: Also from NASA is this free, open-source software program that lets you zoom in on Earth from outer space. It's similar to Google Earth and is one of the government's most popular downloads. And because it's open-source, the public has been offering tweaks to make it better.
The U.S. Postal Service: The Postal Service is a quasi-governmental agency, established by the executive branch but run like an independent business. Its site reflects the fact that it competes with the likes of FedEx, offering online package tracking and label printing. But it also has some other cool features, like the Electronic Postmark. The EPM service helps you track and protect electronic data you send online, using time stamps, digital signatures, and other means. You also can use the site to have your mail stopped when you go on vacation.
Security Checkpoint Wait Times: Here's a quick-and-dirty service. It seemed only fair that if the Transportation Security Administration was going to screen airline passengers more closely, it should offer some sort of tool to help them estimate wait times at the nation's airports. This isn't real-time info, so you can't find out what the security checkpoint waits are at Washington Dulles International Airport right now, but the site uses recent historical data to help you out.
National Sex Offender Public Registry: Another simple service for all the parents out there. The Justice Department recently turned on this public site that serves as a central location offering U.S. citizens information about potentially dangerous individuals who might be living near them. The data itself comes from states, but having it in one place is convenient. Not all states participate.
AnnualCreditReport.com: No, it isn't technically a government Web site, but if it weren't for your contentious lawmakers on Capitol Hill, this incredibly important online service likely wouldn't exist. Starting last December, Congress required the three major credit agencies to provide citizens with a free credit report once a year. The rollout took 10 months, but now everyone in America can go to this site and request their report, which is critical for heading off identity theft or other mischief that could ruin a person's credit score.
Finding What You Need
The fact is, virtually every government agency (and some that are closely tied to government) has a Web site. Some are merely informational; others deliver valuable services. And still others (yes, it's true) are just plain fun.
Search engines such as Clusty and Google have special sections devoted to finding information from online government resources. And others like Yahoo make it easy to search only sites with .gov domain names.
Government Web sites may not be the first places you'd think to search for whatever it is you're looking for, but let's face it, few companies, institutions, or entire countries can invest in technology the way Uncle Sam can. So take the time to explore online your tax dollars at work.
Brad Grimes covers technology for Government Computer News in Washington, D.C.