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GSA unveils overhaul of USA.gov, featuring mobile apps

The General Services Administration unveiled on Friday a refurbished USA.gov, the official home page for federal services and resources. It now features mobile applications, a more sophisticated search engine and other enhanced navigation aides.

One mobile app, allowing consumers to scan a product's barcode with their smartphones to immediately determine if it appears on a recall list, represents the direction where federal services are headed, said Dave McClure, GSA associate administrator of citizen services and innovative technologies.

"It illustrates where we want to drive service delivery in the government so we can make it as real-time as possible. We're not quite there yet," he said during a call with reporters on Thursday.

The Obama administration over the past year has installed numerous online dashboards, which keep tabs on the progress of projects and services, in an effort to demonstrate the federal government can keep pace with private sector customer service and productivity standards.

For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services now provides applicants with real-time information on the status of their cases, as well as the processing timetables for specific forms at specific offices. And the Office of Management and Budget hosts several sites dedicated to monitoring information technology investments and improper payments. The challenge has been prodding agencies to provide apples-to-apples information on a continuous basis with sufficient context, experts and advocates have said.

The redesign of USA.gov cost about $280,000, McClure said. Mobile apps are separate expenses that vary widely based on agency and program, he said.

The upgraded search function is supported by Microsoft's Bing engine but indexed using government websites, rather than the whole web. Users can find relevant non-government links through a "related searches" function.

A search for "jobs" pulls up a list of pertinent questions and answers (such the government's definition of green jobs) and forms (including an employer's application to provide job training). The first five hits that pop up are the government's official job search site, USAJobs.gov; jobs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; a list of job openings in Florida; a Fox News video from House Majority Leader John Boehner's site titled "President Obama Should Quit Whining, Focus on Jobs and the Country;" and available jobs at the Federal Aviation Administration.

The site also retrieves a list of popular links containing the keyword "jobs," including a new job creation law.

The government acquired Bing's services by default when its existing search provider subcontracted with Microsoft. GSA plans to recompete the search contract in the fall, McClure said.

With the refresh of USA.gov, GSA officials are attempting to transform a nearly decade-old catalog of links provided by government employees into an interactive storefront for government services that citizens desire. Officials spent months gathering input on what the public wanted through online dialogues and focus groups.

The site now has rotating banners highlighting opportunities to communicate with the government, such as applying for a passport online and participating in formulating agency strategy at a Housing and Urban Development Department discussion forum.

A menu of mobile apps at the bottom of the homepage links to about 20 tools, including a locator that finds nearby gas stations selling alternative fuel. Most of the apps are free and downloadable on popular smartphones, such as Apple's iPhone, Android-based devices and BlackBerries. But they do not all offer the same level of compatibility. For instance, the National Institutes of Health body mass index calculator only works on the iPhone.

"We see this as a modest beginning," McClure said, adding that GSA has identified more than 100 apps throughout the federal government that are in design, testing or production.

Some of the apps were previously accessible elsewhere on the Web -- typically on the sponsor agency's website or commercial app storefronts.

"There are over 24,000 websites across the federal government, yet the fastest growing market is in mobile computing," U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra said during a call with reporters on Tuesday.

He added, "We're not going to build all the apps. There are going to be third parties that are going to interface" with USA.gov.

Currently, federal data apps developed by outside programmers are not available on USA.gov, but officials are contemplating adding them in the future.

"We're in a difficult budget environment and we need to do more with less money," said Chief Performance Officer Jeff Zients, who also was on Tuesday's call. The new website offers the government "the ability to unlock information and make it more accessible," he said.

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