Attorney and author Kathy Biehl practiced law privately in Houston, Texas for 18½ years before relocating to New York City in 1998. She has taught legal research and writing at the University of Houston Law Center and business law at Rice University. A member of the State Bar of Texas, she earned a B.A. with highest honors from Southern Methodist University and a J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, where she was a member of Texas Law Review and Order of the Coif. She is co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research (Scarecrow Press, Nov. 2000), with Tara Calishain.
Web Critic evaluates legal research Web sites in terms of the informationthey convey, how effectively they convey it and how well they take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet -- or don't.
The beginning of this year brought major leaps forward in the realm of state government home pages. In this column, we'll look at user-friendly innovations at three sites -- Washington, Pennsylvania and California. The first has adopted a natural language search tool, while the other two have followed the lead of general interest Web portals and embraced the trend towards customization.
If the name of the State of Washington's new search engine brings to mind the general search engine Ask Jeeves, there's good reason. As Federal Computer Week reported on March 5, 2001, the state called on Ask Jeeves, the search engine that handles natural language, full-sentence questions, to redesign and host a search tool for Washington's home page.
The new tool receives more than the usual play on the page. Ask George isn't relegated to an unobtrusive search box or a tiny link at the bottom of the page. It rates a banner directly under the Access Washington logo. An icon of General Washington, leaning against the phrase ASK GEORGE, draws attention to the query box. The fine print invites visitors to type in a question, a point that's also made by the question mark that doubles as the "enter" button.
Ask George operates in the same way as Ask Jeeves. It responds to entire questions by generating a list of questions, which may be related to the query and to which it has answers. Below that, the search results list and describe other possibly pertinent resources, under the heading "You may also be interested in the following."
I ran a number of sample queries through Ask George and can report that I rarely needed to look at the second category of responses, because the desired answer frequently appeared near the top of Ask George's suggested re-phrasings of the question. I can also testify that Ask George does handle keywords as well, but full-sentence questions fare better.
"How do I track a bill in progress?" hit the jackpot, with Ask George rephrasing the question as "Where can I find the laws and bills about a certain topic?" "Who is the chair of the state senate tax committee?" drew multiple responses for the state senate and for tax information, including a pointer to the Web page for the state senate.
When I typed, "How do I form a corporation?" the first response was "How do I obtain forms from," accompanied by a pull-down menu with names of four agencies, none of which was corporations. The first of the additional resources was on point, however, directing to State of Washington Corporations PDF Forms.
My searches experimented with varying levels of specificity. Ask George, it turns out, can handle a fair level of vagueness, which bodes well for users who are so immersed in their quest that they neglect to state their frame of reference clearly . For "Where is the courthouse?" Ask George's second alternate phrasing was right on target: "How can I find a court in my county?" The first suggestion for "How can I figure out my local tax rates and codes?" hit the mark with "What is my sales tax rate?" The additional resources came through, too, by pointing to a tool for determining sales tax rates by address.
If you type keywords into Ask George, take care to be specific. I entered "articles of incorporation" and received a string of references to sections of the revised code, each giving the beginning of the section. I tried "filing articles of incorporation" and the same result came up. Strangely, "How do I file articles of incorporation" wasn't much more helpful. As with any search engine, if a query doesn't yield useful information, tinker with the phrasing.
Though it's the most attention-getting, Ask George is not the only search tool at Access Washington. The link More Search Tools leads to two specific engines, Find-It! (for state and local government services) and the legislature's legislative info engine. Hit Search from any page to retrieve all three options. Some pages split the tools into Find It! Washington, Consumer Find It!, Legislative Info Search and the Access Washington Resource Directory, which is a searchable directory of government services.
Innovations abound at the revamped Web homes of Pennsylvania (PA PowerPort) and California (My California). The new designs of both make it possible for users to choose, to varying extents, the resources displayed on the site's top page.
Both sites require registration and obtaining a user name and password, but the procedures differ. PA PowerPort delays customizing until registration is complete. Instead of taking new registrants to a customization screen, however, it requires them to find it. Up until the point that registration is complete, the pages display a link inviting the visitor to customize the page. Once registration is complete, this link disappears. Clear instructions are in order here.
Save yourself some needless detours (I took a couple myself): When registration is complete, look for the exclamation point next to the word Options. This leads to the customization page, which offers eight options. Four are pre-checked: Citizen Services; Lottery (not just a link, the actual numbers); Weather; and What's Hot. The remaining options are Driving Conditions, Government Happenings, Legislative Links, and Regional Weather. The pre-checked options are not mandatory; you may select however many (or few) you wish, and then specify the order in which they will appear on your page. Moving components around is easy; highlight an item and then click buttons to change its position in the line-up or to delete. After you have selected customization options, they appear in the right column of the screen, once you have returned to the My PA PowerPort page.
I selected five components for my PA PowerPort: Legislative Links, Citizen Services, What's Hot, Regional Weather, and Driving Conditions. The impetus behind the last two was purely personal, but the first three offered items that could come in handy with my work. Legislative Links consist of the General Assembly's Bill Room, bill tracking reports, bill topic index, calendars and committee meeting schedules. Citizen Services include MSN's yellow pages, government blue pages -- the first online in the nation, Pennsylvania claims -- and a statewide calendar, which was full of tax assistance days and dam safety workshops when I took a look. The What's Hot section offers a site map and a directory of technology companies and organizations in the state. Links in the technology directory point to such resources as economic and workforce development, education, and venture capital.
Another noteworthy feature of PA PowerPort is grouping together listings of the state's online services for citizens, business, education, and communities. To access these, press the "E-government services" logo on the portal's front page. The citizen heading is an umbrella for everything from civil service employment applications to sporting licenses to taxicab complaints. Business services include filing payments and returns for sales tax and employer withholding tax; liquor license renewal or validation; registering as a lobbyist and filing required reports; registering an enterprise; and forms downloads and guides at Pennsylvania Open for Business. Look under education for filing and tracking grants, as well as accessing the state library online catalog. The scantiest offerings appear under community services, pointing primarily to historical and museum commission grants.
The Get Free E-Mail link, under Citizen Services, warrants an aside, because it is a bit of misnomer. The site doesn't offer e-mail services. Instead, the portal gives a testimonial to the power of e-mail and directs users to free services elsewhere on the Web, such as Hotmail, Lycos, and Excite. Each link to a free e-mail provider triggers the warning that you are leaving the site and that Pennsylvania neither controls nor endorses any external site.
Other innovations at the site include a listing of press releases from the governor (with a doorway to his online press room) and a clickable map of the state, which links online news services.
The customization procedure is more self-evident at California's new portal. As soon as you click "Personalize This Page," the process begins. It first requires choosing a community, to "help us provide more relevant content and information on services that fit your needs." The categories are California resident, business person, media/press, state employee, student, and tourist. The choice does not limit you to resources applicable only to that category, however. The next step in the process offers 10 headings -- such as business, government, labor, natural resources, or state history -- with around a dozen choices under each. (Note to California commuters: Travel offers real-time views of highways and roads.) My selections included courts, agencies, the legislature, tax information and laws.
The end of the personalization process returns you to the My California gateway, which will now display your first name. (Am I the only person that this trend disturbs?) Below the Online Services links, which appear as well on the non-personalized portal, is a My Links banner with the items you've selected. Each is a link to the topic index of whatever category it fell under (government, for example), with the entries for the selected sub-category expanded and annotated.
Back to the Online Services: As does Pennsylvania, California offers a directory of tasks that users may perform online. The welcoming page displays a centrally placed announcement of some of them, such as tax refund status, campsite reservations, nursing license renewals, and vehicle registration. A longer list of a dozen or so is only a click away. The list is not inclusive, however. It does not, for example, encompass business services, such as the Secretary of State's online business registration or searchable database of filings.
Also as with Pennsylvania, news from the governor is accessible from the gateway. California also provides information at a glance, such as an update to the energy crisis and brief answers to timely questions (at this writing, regarding filing electronic tax returns). Featured Links and Quick Hits in the right column lead to city and county Websites, legislation, forms, licenses, and the eBusiness Center (which at the moment has only a pilot program for nursing license registration).
One notable innovation lurks at the bottom of the page, under the heading Web Content Accessibility: The state of California had its new portal reviewed for accessibility to the disabled. The review was favorable; the Accessibility Center of Excellence certified it on Jan 7 as meeting all Priority One checkpoints and many Priority Two checkpoints of the World Wide Web Consortium Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. (For an introduction to these guidelines, see the March 1, 2001 Web Critic column, And Web Accessibility for All? Assessing the Government Technology Magazine Award Winners in Terms of Accessibility for People with Disabilities.
.According to the fine print of the statement, the certification applies to two URLs only, http://my.ca.gov and http://www.ca.gov. Both URLs belong to a splash page with one paragraph of text, which automatically redirects to the state's full-blown home page. If these two URLs are in fact the only pages that received certification, the certification is of limited, symbolic use.
I double-checked the statement of accessibility by running the certified URLs (and the expanded URLs to which they point) through the evaluation utility Bobby, which I discussed at length in the March 1, 2001 Web Critic. Bobby also uses the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, on which the California site's certification was based. Bobby did not generate accessibility errors for the two certified URLs, nor for either version of the portal's expanded address (http://www.ca.gov/state/portal/myca_homepage.jsp or http://www.my.ca.gov/state/portal/myca_homepage.jsp). The items that Bobby required to be checked manually on the certified URLs (which are called user checks) did not appear to present problems. Both expanded URLs, however, met more user checks than I was capable of evaluating. If the certification does apply to the actual portal and not merely its splash page, the site should clarify this fact.
ã Kathy Biehl 2001.