New Federal Register website opens info to public

One of the creators of the site explains why his company did what it did.

As we’ve been telling you, the Federal Register has a new look online.

Bob Burbach is a developer for WestEd Interactive and worked on the Federal Register v. 2.0.

He says the goal has been to take very dense, but very important, information and make it more user-friendly.

“[We want] to present it in a way that encourages people to dig into it — not only the regulatory person who’s familiar with these regulations, but your average citizen who can go in and find out what’s happening with the federal government near them. We really want to open up the Federal Register to the average citizen.”

He explains that his company worked with the Office of the Federal Register and the Government Printing Office in the hopes of fundamentally changing the way the document is presented to the public.

Burbach says it wasn’t exactly easy for him or his team. For one, before he started the project, he didn’t really know what the Federal Register was. Secondly, something like this had never really been done before.

“One of the harder challenges we actually tackled early on was — how are we going to take this dense information — over 40,000 pages for this year [alone] — and make it accessible?”

He explains they wound up creating what he calls a combination between an information website and a news website.

“We broke down the rules and regulations into six main categories, things like money and environment and science and technology, and created landing feature pages for those. So, you can come in, even as an outsider or someone familiar with the register, and say, ‘I’m interested in this area, let me start there as my search’.”

The site has an editor whose sole job consists of gathering articles about regulations and culling them in one place.

Burbach says he hopes this process will not only get more people to visit the site for information, but encourage them to interact online, as well.

The site also relies on XML, which he explains made the development process much easier.

“We had actually started the prototype that we built about this time last year without [it], and it was so much harder to do without that structured markup. So, with the structured markup, we’ve been able to do things that we weren’t able to do before. As technology people, we’re not fighting with the content anymore. We’re able to utilize [it] and do new things with it that weren’t possible when we didn’t have that structure.”

Besides XML, Burbach says they also relied on open source to avoid having to reinvent the wheel and leverage the work that others have already done.

“So, we do have links into Facebook so you can share this on your Facebook account. You can tweet about this. You can get a short URL to put wherever you want. We’re linking into those social networking services, because we really want people to be able to take things that they’re passionate about and tell others about them and begin this conversation.”

Above all, though, he says the site wouldn’t have come out the way it did without the cooperation of the agencies themselves.

“The Office of the Federal Register and everyone there at the OFR and GPO has been very forward-thinking with this. It was actually a real pleasure to work with them and to kind of figure out how we were going to do this. . . . Their incredible knowledge of the content, combined with us as technologists and our understand of the web — the merger of those two things together as a team has worked out really, really well.”

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