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October 1, 1995

Web site delivers
access to government

By Timothy C. Barmann

When King Charles II of England signed the Rhode Island Royal Charter in 1663, he couldn't have imagined where it would someday end up.

The hand-lettered parchment document is locked in a glass safe inside the State House. But the king's words have been transcribed into computer bits and bytes that now travel freely through the electronic ether.

That historic charter, plus a plethora of reports chronicling today's happenings in Rhode Island state government, are now available on the global Internet.

It's all to be found on a new World Wide Web site set up by Rhode Island Secretary of State James Langevin and his staff. It went online last month.

"We consider (the Web site) to be one of our major campaign promises," Langevin said recently while he and several of his top aides gave a demonstration to a reporter. That promise, he said, was to make his office "the office of public information in Rhode Island state government."

Langevin's "Online Office," as he calls it, is a comprehensive collection of state and local government resources compiled from existing publications and newly created material, said John Tabella, Langevin's chief of staff and a principal architect of the Web site.

What is significant about the new site, Langevin said, is that it opens up access to the workings of state government for everyone, not just the "well-connected."

"The folks who really had the advantage were . ..corporations who could pay to have a lobbyist down here to track legislation for them so they could be in the State House when the bills were coming up," Langevin said. "This really levels the playing the field."

Tracking legislation is one of the key features of the Web site. In a section called "Rhode Island Government," users can find descriptions of all 3,200 bills introduced by the House and the Senate in 1995.

This is where some of the most interesting reading can be found. For example, one bill introduced in the Senate was the "Act Relating To Animals And Animal Husbandry." Another bill proposed in both chambers was one that would allow the sale of certain cars without a spare tire and jack.

And then there's Senate resolution 95-S-1503: A challenge to the House of Representatives to play in a charity softball game.

What ever happened to posting a memo on the office bulletin board?

Accountability by e-mail

Eventually, citizens with questions like those can pose them directly to lawmakers who sponsor such bills, Tabella said. Users will be able to send e- mail to legislators simply by clicking on their names, which appear next to their bills, and typing a message.

"It really adds a whole new level of accountability," Tabella said.

However, very few legislators actually have e-mail addresses right now. But the Secretary's office is exploring ways of offering e-mail to them, he said.

Besides the bills and laws, the government section has a Web page for each state legislator, complete with contact information and a small portrait. Users can search for the lawmakers by district or by name.

There's also a list of legislative reports that detail upcoming hearings taking place at the State House, and a "Business Center" for entrepreneurs looking for help in starting a new business.

There's even a "virtual tour" of the State House, complete with pictures.

But there is still some work to be done on the Web site.

The frustration factor

While the site is chock-full with terrific resources, getting to them can be frustrating. Attractive pictures and graphics adorn many of the Web pages, but that slows their travel to your computer.

For example, the main menu, which has six pictures, takes about one minute to download with a 14,400 bits-per-second modem. Other menus require similar download times.

And to read or search the section where House and Senate bills are listed, one must download two huge files, which took about 15 minutes total.

Tabella said Langevin's office is aware of these problems and is addressing them. The graphics logjam has been somewhat alleviated by alternative text-only menus that don't have any pictures. All of the Web pages will eventually be converted to words-only, Tabella said.

He said the office also is looking into the best way of breaking up the large files containing the legislation descriptions into several smaller ones. But the larger files will continue to be available for those who want them, he said.

The cost of putting together the Web site was about $1,500, Tabella said, mostly for software. All of the work was done in-house, most of it by Tabella and Ed Giroux, the Secretary of State's director of data services. It took them about one month to build the Web pages, Giroux said.

The Secretary's office does pay a $350 monthly charge to maintain the Internet connection.

Tabella said the office is working with Intelecom Data Systems of East Greenwich, the company providing the Internet connection, to add enhancements that will allow users to read and search the full text of bills introduced, rather than only their descriptions.

But for now, we'll just have to live with summaries of those animal husbandry acts.

Getting there: The address of the Web site is http://www.sec.state.ri.us/. To connect, users need a computer and a modem and a connection to the Internet.

The three largest online services offer World Wide Web connections, as do a number of local Internet providers.

And the Ocean State Free-Net, the state's public computing network, was to add this past week the ability to display text-only views of World Wide Web pages through a program called Lynx. For a recording of detailed connect information, call 277-2728, ext. 500. Live help is available at that number, weekdays from 1 to 3 p.m.

Computer calendar

Friday-Sunday - Home and Family Computing Supershow presented by Time Magazine at the Bayside Exposition Center, 200 Mt. Vernon St., Boston from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. A flyer advertises it as a "technology theme park showcasing computers, consumer technologies and interactive applications for kids, families, educators and small businesses." Purchases can be made on the showroom floor.

Directions: Take I-93 to exit 15. Admission: Adults $9; children 4-12 $5; students and senior citizens $7; Children under 3 free.

For information, call MultiMedia Publishing Corp., 713-974-5252.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.