I ran into this odd post recently about the US Census Bureau's census tool called American Factfinder -- odd because it was mix of interesting, fact-based reporting with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek facetiousness. Nursing a "long-standing grudge against another piece of contractor-built government software," William Hartnett (who may or may not be a journalist) decided to submit a FOIA request to find out how much it cost to build and then wrote a post about it entitled "The U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, which everyone in the universe hates, cost taxpayers $33.3 million. So that’s great."
Hartnett's FOIA request garnered an amazingly quick response from the US Census Bureau:
The name of the company that developed the current version of the American FactFinder web application is IBM U.S. Federal and the total $33,340,681.00.
While I'm the first to admit that FactFinder is a difficult and confusing tool to use (not to mention that the Census Bureau decided not to host the 1990 census data on AFF2 but instead to only make it available for download on their FTP server!), I would put it in neither the "useless boondoggle" nor even the "steamy pile of sh*t" category. But at least now we now know how much FactFinder cost to build.
Besides that little informational tidbit, Hartnett also provided pointers to 2 Web sites of interest:
Muckrock: This site, for a small fee (not clear if they'll manage your FOIA fees exemption), helps researchers, journalists and the public submit and manage their FOIA requests, and scans and makes them available to the public. Check out the FOIA requests currently in their queue. You can follow @MuckRockNews on twitter.
Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) has a Census project "designed to provide journalists with a simpler way to access 2010 Census data so they can spend less time importing and managing the data and more time exploring and reporting the data." This is a great example of a useful tool built from bulk data supplied by the US Census Bureau! Check out the tool and let us know what you think.
Our friend Gary Price has started a new series over at searchengineland on "incredibly useful online information resources that are most effectively searched using their own site search tools, rather than relying on general-purpose engines to surface their valuable content." This looks to be a series worth following.
At least 3 of the 4 in his first entry should be of particular interest to government information specialists: the C-SPAN Video Library, Old Maps Online, and Archive-It. Gary's comments are always useful. Did you know that, "unlike the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, Archive-It collections are keyword searchable"?
- Four Seriously Cool Information Resources, by Gary Price, Search Engine Land, (March 9, 2012).
Check it out!
First, Science.gov Mobile is now available at m.science.gov as a web app. No download required.
The new databases:
- Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) (EPA) under Environment and Environmental Quality
- DOE Data Explorer under Math, Physics, Chemistry (a product of Science Accelerator)
- Energy Science and Technology Software Center (ESTSC) DOE (a product of Science Accelerator)
Science.gov now provides access to more than 45 databases that can be searched one at a time or simultaneously and can also be a very useful discovery tool to learn about U.S. government science databases accessible to the general public.
The Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) and Creative Commons (CC) today announced a partnership to improve search results on the World Wide Web through the creation of a metadata framework specifically for learning resources.
Improving Web Searches for Students, by Steve Kolowich, Inside Higher Ed (June 8, 2011)
...a coalition of education-oriented companies and organizations aims to make it easier to find useful educational content amid the detritus of the Web.... [T]hey are forming a working group to come up with more detailed criteria that could eventually be incorporated into the search interfaces for Google, Bing, and Yahoo!
"Searching is easy, finding is hard, and finding relevant is very hard.... The purpose of this effort is to provide a series of tags and tools that allows the search engines to more discretely and accurately expose the educational resources to the people who need it, said [Michael] Johnson [an AEP board member]. The project is aimed at benefiting the publishers of educational content as much as students, he said. By giving publishers better flares and students better binoculars, Johnson and his colleagues hope to up their chances of finding one another in the wilderness of the Web.
This site provides a collection of schemas, i.e., html tags, that webmasters can use to markup their pages in ways recognized by major search providers. Search engines including Bing, Google and Yahoo! rely on this markup to improve the display of search results, making it easier for people to find the right web pages.
A Study on Metadata Elements for Web-based Reference Resources System Developed through Usability Testing, by Younghee Noh, (Konkuk University), Library Hi Tech, Vol. 29 Iss: 2.
The study aimed to improve metadata elements of web-based reference resources. To propose correct metadata elements, it was deemed necessary to close the gap between the perception of metadata creators and data creators through a user behavior analysis.
Steven Aftergood reports (CIA Updates Digital Archive, Restricts Access, Secrecy News, March 26, 2009) on the release by the Central Intelligence Agency of a new tool that allows users to search on-line to discover the availability of declassified CIA documents. The tool is the CIA FOIA - 25-Year Program Archive Search.
But you cannot download the documents you discover. Steven notes that the CIA will not "put the entire CREST database online so that anyone, anywhere could download these declassified, often heavily censored records. Nor will CIA release an electronic copy of the CREST database so that others may post it."
The CIA justifies withholding the complete text because, "The Agency evidently believes that there are latent secrets concealed in the declassified record that could somehow be extracted by a clever analyst who reviewed them in electronic form."
See also: Pozen, David. The Mosaic Theory, National Security, and the Freedom of Information Act. SSRN eLibrary. 26 Mar 2009.
Steven also says:
In 1995, President Clinton ordered agencies that classify information to “establish a Governmentwide database of information that has been declassified” (Executive Order 12958, section 3.8). That never happened, and in 2003 President Bush deleted the requirement (Executive Order 13292, section 3.7). Restoring such a requirement, and fulfilling it, would be an appealing feature of a new executive order on classification.
EFF Launches Search Tool for Uncovered Government Documents, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), March 16th, 2009.
In celebration of Sunshine Week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today launched a sophisticated search tool that allows the public to closely examine thousands of pages of documents the organization has pried loose from secretive government agencies. The documents relate to a wide range of cutting-edge technology issues and government policies that affect civil liberties and personal privacy.
Search EFF's FOIA Documents.
This article describes changes coming next month as well as some long term thinking about the future of searching across federal, state, and local government web sites. The new changes are aimed at giving the managers of agency web sites a bit more control over how their results appear to users of USASearch.gov. A user searching for "passport" will be more assured of finding a link to State Department's latest information and instructions, for instance. The article also notes long term changes are possible. The five-year contract that USASearch.gov has with Vivisimo will be expiring in a couple of years and in the last two years "the industry's best search companies have opened their development platforms and made it much easier to access their indexes through common application programming interfaces." Currently, USASearch.gov uses Microsoft Live Search and Vivisimo.
- Widgets to the rescue, By Wyatt Kash, GCN, May 26, 2008. "USASearch.gov aims to make agency info easier to find with new spotlight tool."
When I was first asked to be a guest blogger on this site I asked if it would be possible to every now and then mention some of what we were up to at Ask.com. I was told, absolutely yes, go for it. Well, here it's the 20th of the month and I have shared very little about Ask.com.
So, without further adieu here are some fast facts and examples. For more about my role at Ask, I was interviewed by Search Engine Watch last week.
It's important to remember that the Ask.com of 2007 is not the same Ask Jeeves product that was around in the 1990's. Far from it. Jeeves retired :-) in 2006 and Ask.com is now an algorithmic engine (like Google, Yahoo, MSN Live, others) with some human edited features. We can save the discussion about what makes are algorithm different (ExpertRank) for another time.
1) Smart RSS
If a person enters the name of a blog or feed, the editors name (in some cases) not only do they get web results back but also a near real-time feed of headlines. Three Examples:
+ Om Malik
+ FDA Recalls
2) Query Context
If the search is pics of golden gate bridge not only are web results returned but also results from the Ask.com image database. Ask was the first major engine to offer this feature.
3) If a country name is searched Ask offers several sources for info about the country (or state) at the top of the page. Sort of a virtual ready reference shelf. In some cases, if a stat is searched for, that will also be returned on the results page. Example: Market Cap Cisco (CSCO).
Direct links to NCES database, city home page, chamber of commerce, etc.
4) This search for Ben Franklin not only offers useful results at the top of the page (a Smart Answer) but also options to narrow, expand, and see related names. These results are called Zoom, related results and are similar to what once was available on Teoma. In fact, Teoma technology powers Ask.com. Here's another example for San Francisco earthquake.* We place them on the right rail because it's a highly visible spot (where others place sponsored links).
5) Ask.com also owns Bloglines and both sites have blog/feed engines. Same database, different features. One feature people like about the Ask.com interface are the direct links (below each title) to subscribe to the feed or share the post using a variety of services, including Ask.com and Bloglines competitors.
Now, drag the #1 or #2 "pin" to a new location. Watch the street name(s) change and the route recalculated on the fly. You can have up to 10 locations. You can also add location by simply selecting a spot on the map, right clicking and selecting "Add Location." Aerial imagery is also available by selecting the aerial link at the top of the map.
7) Ask.com is also helpful for the typical searcher who might want a Zip Code but only enter a city name. Example:
Zip Code Springfield. We offer a pull-down that lists all cities named Springfield along with a direct link to the USPS for all Zips in the selected city. Here's another example with disambiguation built in. This time, a search for info about man's best friend.