j.j. toothman

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open.nasa.gov launches to the public

Congratulations to NASA’s Open Government Team – Nick, Ali, Chris, and a few others I’m sure I’m forgetting – on getting their new website launched – http://open.nasa.gov.  The site uses the open source content management system WordPress1 to publish and share success stories as well as projects that promote government transparency and collaboration.

open.nasa.gov Screenshot

I have intimate knowledge of everything the team went through to get this site launched. And as it is with anything having to do with the inner workings of the federal government, this project met its fair share of bureaucracy, repetitive debate, and internal politics.  I’m pretty sure they had to jump through a ring of fire, solve the debt crisis, and return the ring to Mordor before getting this site released to the public.2

But as much as I could praise their perserverance in seeing the project through to the finish line3, I’d much rather highlight and applaud the site’s visual and information design. As a admirer and practitioner of minimalist web design, I believe that interface design should get out of the way and let content shine through.  Simply put, the best web design lets the content speak for itself.  NASA possesses visual imagery that makes up some of the most compelling content anyone has ever seen.  I’m happy to see that open.nasa.gov was designed and developed in a way that I notice the site titles, logos, and navigation only as the functional elements that they are; and not the design and branding elements that they are often deployed as.

I wish I could say the same of every NASA web site.4


  1. Hey, just like this site does.  Those guys chose wisely. 

  2. No. Not really.  Except possibly the ring of fire part. 

  3. A lot of that bureaucracy stuff is often utilized to make projects organically drop off the radar 

  4. Especially, this one 

Test driving APPS.gov NOW

After an intense week, I finally got around to taking APPS.gov NOW out for test drive.  It was at Tuesday’s FedTalks event that the GSA New Media Team announced that APPS.gov NOW was now available for government employees to sign up for and start using.  What this site aims to do is allow federal employees to easily start using hosted social media tools such as blogs, wikis, and forums. The value add is that the GSA new media team has made it as turnkey as possible.  Yes, there are minor customization possibilities. 1   And it supposedly checks off the boxes and the numerous web compliance and policy issues that federal web content owners have to deal with.  Such as Section 508.

For more reading, Gartner’s Andrea Dimaio has a good post about it and I agree with his assertion that GSA has done its part in providing federal government agencies the toolkits helpful in supporting Open Government initiatives.  But nothing replaces first hand experiences with a new tool and since I have a nasa.gov email account, that’s exactly what I decided to do. 

I signed up for an account at http://citizen.apps.gov around 8:20 AM on Saturday.  Easy enough. Opened up my email client and the “Complete your registration by clicking this link” email was sitting there timestamped 8:25 AM. 

Hit the link, picked a password, and my registration was complete.  Interesting that GSA doesn’t enforce stronger, secure passwords.  I was able to pick a fairly simple 7 character length password.  Strongly suggest this be improved. 

Next email indicating my registration was complete arrived at 8:27 AM and I decided to see what services I could sign up for.  I can create a new blog, wiki, and discussion forums.  There’s also a “Challenge” solution that will help you run contests.  It’s interesting that for both wikis and discussion boards there are two choices with the software package powering them clearly indicating.2 I’m fairly certain that I read somewhere that WordPress is powering the blogs, but that isn’t indicated.  Which isn’t a big deal at all.  But it’s interesting to me as a minor WordPress fanboy. 

I decided to create a new blog and was able to pick my own URL.  And at 8:29 AM, I received an email confirmation that my “new wordpress instance is now accessible through the following url: http://blog.citizen.apps.gov/jjtoothman”.  Not bad.  In less than 10 minutes, I’ve registered for an account and created a new blog.((Note to GSA: It’s WordPress, not wordpress)) I also received an admin username and password for my new blog.  And good news: it’s a pretty secure password. 

But unfortunately when I clicked on the link to my new blog, I received an error message saying the URL could not be found.  Bummer. Instant gratification delayed.  Looking for some assistance, I re-read the email notification about my new blog.  No indicators that it would take some time for the service to launch.  Let’s find the online help at APPS.gov NOW.  There’s a combination of FAQ’s, help forums (which are discussion boards), and Getting Started links.  The Getting Started links all lead to PDF’s.  That’s not ideal.  And if you’re using WordPress as the blog engine, the WordPress Codex has tons of useful information for people new to WordPress.  Just link to that stuff.

I decided to look into the help forums.  There’s a lot of action in there.  To find what I was looking for, I made use of the search box.  But sadly, any search I tried to make resulted in a message of “Sorry but you are not permitted to use the search system.” Some searches resulted in Apache “Access Forbidden” messages.  What?!?!?!  Unacceptable user experience in my opinion.  Search is a fundamental feature of almost every web service.  GSA needs to fix that immediately.

Next, decided to refresh the blog URL I signed up for.  Hey, it works!  Guess, it was just a service provisioning issue.  Not a big deal.  Don’t know the exact time I actually started working, but it was definitely less than an hour from signup.  That’s acceptable, but it would recommend improving how customer expectations are being sent.  Basically I’m saying, don’t send me an email saying that my blog is ready until it actually is.

Yup, it’s a WordPress blog.  Standard blogroll links I’m familiar with in every fresh WordPress installation are there.  The admin log in page is WordPress branded.  Upon logging in, I’m given some pointers on how to get started with customizing the look and feel of my blog.  Users new to WordPress and blogging will appreciate that.  Good move.

Going to stop there for now.  Yes, I am fully aware that this is a service that is “in beta.” And I’d say that it’s a service off to a good start.  Yes, I have some suggestions for improvement which are outlined above. But none of them should be considered showstoppers.  If you’re a government looking to use hosted social media tools for engaging the public, APPS.gov NOW is a solution worth trying out.

UPDATE: On Monday morning I received an email with suggested “Next Steps.”  Basically, its a canned “how you can get help” message.  Among the suggestions is to sign up for the help forum.  Hmmm, is that what is needed to use the forum search feature?  It’s also odd to me that I would have to create a separate account to use a help feature for a service. 3


  1. End user customization with governement customers is always an interesting sticking point.  There’s ALWAYS desire for custom branding at different levels.  I’ll be interested to see exactly how much customization is possible.  If it’s just a top banner, people will surely feel limited by that. 

  2. And one of the discussion board software packages is phpBB, which historically runs into tons of security issues.  Good luck with that, GSA 

  3. But I’ve worked in government since 2001, I guess I really shouldn’t be so surprised that another account needs to be created.  Government I.T. is really, REALLY good at creating user account sprawl. 

Speaking at the Social Media for Government Conference in Chicago this week

Probably should have mentioned this previously, but this week I’ll be speaking at the Social Media for Government Conference in Chicago.  I’ll be providing a case study on the WordPress blog I created for NASA Ames Research Center in 2007 (screenshot of that is below), including all the cultural, process, and legal barriers the team encountered along the way.1  But I’ll also be speaking about the value of open source community principles as a change agent within government agencies and bureaucracies – a topic I’ll be zeroing in on even more during a talk I’m giving next month at the GOSCON conference in Portland, Oregon.

 

Ames center.arc.nasa.gov blog screenshot built with WordPress


  1. This is a case study I’ve been wanting to share for a few years.  

Footnotes in blog posts

You may have noticed that I’ve started including footnotes in my blog posts.1

Know this: there’s a really good chance I’m going to grossly overuse these.

I haven’t done this in the past. Why start now?  Well, in whatever writing I’ve done2 whether its a business email, a message to my friends about the current state of the Red Sox3, or a letter to my grandmother, I’ve find that my mind wanders as I write.  Make that as I type4. I go off on brief tangents which I would often include in parentheses.  And it really broke up what I was writing into this distorted flow. Lots of sentences would start with stuff like, “But anyway, as I was saying…”

But there were a couple recent external influences in my current reading materials.  First, there’s John Gruber’s FANTASTIC blog, Daring Fireball.  I’m really enjoying his deep analyisis and long-form writing.  Most recently, his coverage of the iPad and the Apple vs. Adobe WWF cagefight.5.  I’m getting close to saying with full confidence that John Gruber is to tech blogging as Peter Gammons is to baseball writing. 

The second element is that I’ve started reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball.  In the foreward, Malcolm Gladwell of all people shines light on SImmons’ use of footnotes, mentioning “Oh, and read the footnotes.  Simmons is the master of the footnote.”  He’s right.  The footnotes are a must read in this book.  If you don’t read them, you’re going to miss out.

Ok, so we’re at word count of around 330 and I’ve got 5 footnotes.  See?  Told you I was going to overuse these.

Last thing.  Wondering how I’m generating the footnotes in my posts?  It’s a plugin called WP-Footnotes and more information can be found here.


  1. See? here’s a footnote now! 

  2. And to be clear: I am NOT a writer 

  3. current state: not too good, but it’s only April 

  4. I gave up handwriting pretty much anything other than my signature a few years ago.  Even letters to my grandmother.  The art of handwriting is being a sacrificed in the computing age.  But that’s probably another post 

  5. one of these companies has to be The Iron Sheik, I just haven’t figured out which yet 

WP Contact Manager – Turn WordPress into a web based contact directory

I have to admit that I never would have thought of this:

http://designintellection.com/downloads/wp-contact-manager/

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