Highway to Help Under Way

President Bush late in August called for greater government use of the Internet to improve efficiency. The Federal Highway Administration was already on the job with several Web-based portals up and running and more slated to go live in coming months.

The goal of the FHWAs portal-building spree, which has resulted in the creation of 10 portals in the last three years, is to disseminate specifications and share best practices more broadly and roll out federal and state road-building initiatives faster and cheaper.

This fall, the FHWA will launch two knowledge-sharing Web portals designed to pave the way for smoother highways and byways nationwide. The first, called the Right of Way Exchange, is centered on highway rights topics, from state and federal billboard regulations to land acquisition policies. Research & development teams, field engineers, and other interested parties will log on to learn more about process, procedure and solutions.

Similarly, state highway officials across the land will be able to log on to a Transportation Asset Management portal next month to swap data, pose questions, do predictive modeling and better manage U.S. highway assets. Whether comparing pavement deterioration rates or inquiring about bridge repair methods, a wealth of information will be accessible to all players as never before to speed the decision making process.

The genesis for these collaborative communities was FHWAs portal on rumble strips--bumps or grooves at the highways edge that guide errant drivers back on the road--which launched in 1998. This central repository of knowledge is tapped by state highway administrations, safety groups and even road materials manufacturers.

"By and large, people want to help other people reach their goals by exchanging information. So we provided a place to do it," said Mike Burk, chief knowledge officer of the FHWA, in Washington.

Assisting the agency with the project was American Management Systems Inc., a technology consulting company that designed the original rumble strip portal, which has served as a template for the later portals.

A key design consideration made at the start of the project was to bypass Cold Fusion, the popular Web site building software from Macromedia Inc. That software manages discussion threads well but isnt an ideal program for connectivity, said Mark Youman, a principal at AMS, of Fairfax, Va.

Instead, the FHWA portal was built on a Lotus Development Corp. Domino application server, which provides access across Web communities and "allows people to post data as they receive it," Youman said.

"We simply tailored Lotus Domino databases for FHWAs needs," Youman said. "People in business areas dont need to go to a Webmaster or IT department to keep the site consistently updated."

Dominos ability to connect groups via a Web interface was especially critical in reducing the need for Burk and others to travel to the FHWAs field offices in 50 states.

The FHWA measures the portals success not simply by hit quantities--which were initially 60,000 per month but have settled down to 1,000 per month--but in time spent at the site.

"Users perform activities like downloading another states rumble strip specs to insert into their own plans," Burk said.

Ohio drivers, for example, have directly benefited from the rumble strip portal and other FHWA portals. Monique Evans, administrator at the states Department of Transportation Research & Development Office, in Columbus, said the rumble strip portal helped her finalize plans for a number of specialty highway safety applications. "We also used data from the site to help develop Ohios current policy on rumble strip use," Evans said.

In the past, administrators such as Evans had no comprehensive method for researching such issues; they simply networked with their own contacts, made phone calls and sent inquiry e-mail. The FHWA portals offer a broader scope of resources, Evans said.

To keep the FHWA portals relevant, officials have found they need to provide a steady supply of time and personnel. "These sites dont run themselves," said Jim Gownie, a highway safety engineer at the FHWA who served as an expert moderator on the rumble strip portal. "Plus, a specialist must be involved in online conversations to answer questions and direct users to the information theyre looking for; otherwise, the portal loses credibility."

One of the biggest challenges in deploying a public government portal is security, according to Ray Bjorklund, an analyst at Federal Sources Inc., a market research company in McLean, Va. The security issue extends as far as the Federal Privacy Act, which may be violated if personal information becomes accessible.

"If employees home phone numbers are part of the e-system, it could be considered an infringement on their privacy," Bjorklund said.

The FHWA addressed security by password-protecting the portals.

While the constituencies logging on to the original rumble strip portal havent changed, the site itself continues to evolve. Since the sites 1998 implementation, AMS has incorporated lessons learned into the Domino template. For example, a personalized notification feature lets users subscribe to e-mail messages that herald new content on specific topics. Users may also receive a daily e-mail newsletter with headlines, summaries of new content and direct links to the information. «

Cheryl Balian, a free-lance writer in Massachusetts, can be reached at audacitycomm@yahoo.com.