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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 63· No. 3 > Internet Watch

Nov/Dec 1999
Vol. 63· No. 3

Internet Watch

by Kathy Cowles

We're still learning the variety of valuable ways that we can use the Internet. Yet, as wonderful as the prospect of global communication is and as excited as we are to have high bandwidth at our desktops, the Internet's ultimate value to us will be measured in how well we can integrate it into our business process.

As the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) establishes Internet Web sites, they have used them mainly as a means to deliver information about programs, processes, and technologies. We are mindful that our Web sites provide an invaluable catalyst for learning. We take care to organize the Web sites in a way that carefully guides the visitor from the simple to the complex, from introductory to advanced material, from ideas to practical products. We do this in ways that allow visitors access to information that helps them solve or resolve problems.

The ability to access information is especially important in light of the recent FHWA reorganization. The information that the agency manages - how to construct stronger bridges, create longer-lasting pavement, build safer roadside hardware, and help traffic flow more smoothly - has not changed, but where that information is located within the new organization, how one accesses the information, and how one uses the information may have.

By continually focusing on the individuals who visit FHWA online, we can make their experiences much richer when we take a user-centric approach. This means organizing by subject matter rather than by organization chart. It also means creating a community approach where people can communicate with each other on issues of mutual concern. This community-based/user-centric approach provides the visitor with access to knowledge, resources, and, in some cases, a community of technical experts. Furthermore, after gathering information or exploring the resources that are available, visitors have several options for collaboration, cooperation, and community-building. They can participate in the following:

  • Intellectual Discussions - Visitors join a group discussion to canvass or talk about ideas, successes, problems, or frustrations.

  • Practical Discussions - Visitors join a group discussion where information is exchanged and the knowledge has practical use. This could also be a private one-on-one question with a technical "expert." Practical issues could be product success (or failure), lists which expedite referrals, or technical options that expedite decision-making.

  • Calls to Action - Members decide to get together in order to do something. Perhaps the private sector sees new applications, advocate groups need further explanation of complex design issues, or researchers ask for data on new materials and tests results.

There are exciting and innovative Internet business applications across the nation that include applications such as Advanced Traveler Information Systems, integrated Web-based project management systems, forms retrieval, credit assistance, and online permitting.

Public affairs organizations are using the Web to polish their image while they provide real-time constituent feedback. For example, a state DOT public affairs official (PAO) recently told me how he used the Internet to soothe a frustrated driver. One evening, while the PAO was online, he received an angry e-mail from a traveler caught in an evening workzone project. The individual didn't know about the project and was thus delayed for a time. Frustrated, he came home, logged onto his e-mail and sent an emotional message to the DOT. Because the PAO received Internet-based e-mail, and happened to be online at 10:30 p.m., he immediately responded to the driver, apologized, and explained the work-zone project. The result was another e-mail in a far different tone. The driver thanked the PAO and apologized for his curt message, which had been sent out of frustration. Now, that is great customer service!

Many states are now using Webcasting, where individuals can log onto a broadcast-specific World Wide Web site. These plugged-in citizens can watch a live state-of-the-state address, monitor an ongoing city council meeting, or attend training while they are at home or at work. In addition to its government-related Webcasts, DakotaCast,an Internet broadcast service of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, is experimenting with including interactive video clips on the state's Web site. For example, a page describing the damage caused to the state's highways by overweight vehicles will include an interactive video simulation of vehicle characteristics to help viewers determine if their own trucks are illegal.

The Internet is an exciting new place for technical and transportation-oriented communities to work smarter. Let us not view it simply as the information highway, but rather as an integral part of our community and our business-to-business process. By embracing this approach, I believe we will not only provide value-added services for our customers, but we will also advance the national transportation priorities of safety, mobility, and economic development.

Kathy Cowles is the communications director for Avalon Integrated Services Corporation, in Arlington, Va. She has 24 years of experience in communications, marketing, sales, and public affairs. She has held national and international assignments with AT&T International, AT&T Network Systems, the Department of Commerce, the Agency for International Development, and Digital Equipment Corporation. Kathy has been involved with the transportation industry since 1995 and currently serves as secretary of the ITS Virginia board of directors.

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