Federal Publications Now Online, Mobile

on February 03, 2012 at 2:30 PM

The General Services Administration has done the equivalent of expanding from a busy brick-and-mortar book store to a burgeoning e-reader business akin to a mini-Amazon that has already saved the government tens of thousands of dollars.

Until recently, the public used the mail to request printed documents from the GSA’s distribution site in Pueblo, Colo., where government’s printed copies are stored. The site continues to operate, handling millions of print requests.

But since GSA launched publications.usa.gov late last year to deliver free government publications online and to mobile devices, 400,000 documents have been downloaded by the public. The move has saved the government tens of thousands of dollars in printing and postal costs.

“There are a huge number of people who are purchasing tablets and e-readers,” said Stuart Willoughby, director of GSA’s Publication Services and citizen outreach. “We’re trying to meet the needs of citizens who want to read more electronically.”

More than 15 million iPads were sold worldwide in just the fourth quarter of 2011, and 100 million iPhones are in use globally. In FY 11, over 1.4 million publications were either viewed in HTML or downloaded in PDF and ePub formats on GSA’s three channels: Google Books, Scribd and Publications.USA.Gov (formerly pueblo.gov). The goal is to surpass this by 10-20 percent.

Using Amazon.com as its distribution model, the site now has 700 consumer-related publications available online with more to come, everything from health care tips to managing money, going green, employment and education.

Anyone with an iPhone can browse publications.usa.gov, open a PDF file on one of its publication and download it free of charge.

“Our dream is to be the federal government’s official portal for consumer publications,” Willoughby said.

To launch its online program, Willoughby said GSA studied a number of successful e-commercial sites and talked extensively to the experts at amazon.com for pointers.

“Our model is Amazon. We don’t have the budget to be a government Amazon,” he said. “The public doesn’t quite expect it but they want us to be as good as Amazon.”

Putting the publications in PDF and HTML is easy to do, he said, but converting them to MOBI, the format for Kindle, and ePubs, for tablets and e-readers, requires special training and the likelihood an agency will need a conversion contractor.

While a number of agencies are experimenting with distribution of digital publications for mobile devices, many are still in the early stages, Willoughby said.

There are several ways for agencies to move to digital documents. Agencies can convert their copies in-house, using Adobe InDesign software which lets an agency design its own page. It helps them do layouts for print or digital distribution with built-in creative tools and precise control over typography and integrating interactivity, video and audio.

Most agencies aren’t willing to spend time or money to train an in-house staff in handling the logistics of shifting technology. Most opt to hire a conversion contractor on the GSA schedule.

Agencies can find information about conversion on howto.gov or ask Willoughby’s office for assistance at 202-501-1799.

Willoughby’s five tips on how agencies can move their documents to the digital space:

1. Provide your publications in the ePub format because it is the most compatible format for Tablets and eReaders

2. Get some mobile devices, eReaders and tablets and test outconversions before you release them

3. Your employees will need some training regarding digital conversion, usually a one- to two-day training session

4. Publications need to be 508 compliant for those that use the site who have disabilities

5. Pay attention to technology trends. What is important today and may not be next year. “I don’t think people will be playing a lot of CDs in the future,” Willoughby said.

Willoughby was previously the E-Gov Program manager for USA Services and managed a number of US Postal Service electronic programs and new initiatives. These included the management and development of a successful USPS shipping center web site and suite of Internet API Shipping Web Tools.

He said he expects GSA’s digital program will grow rapidly. A single digital copy will have a long reach, he said. He expects “the digital will be downloaded and passed around” to far more than the first person who gets a copy.