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