For all the devastation it brought, Hurricane Sandy also showed how a cadre of Health and Human Services web sites have become a flexible and living conduit for crucial government information when public health and safety are at stake.
In the storm’s aftermath, HHS.gov directed the public to websites with helpful information and relayed important storm-related messages.
Craig Lafond, HHS web operations manager, manages the websites that deliver this urgent safety and health information.
Ticket and bug tracking software is a key component of the web sites’ success, serving as a real-time log aggregator/analyzer with automated alerting, system monitoring tools, and tools to automate server configurations and patch management, Lafond said.
It’s a system that other agencies can copy as they work to to harness their websites into useful tools for the public.
“Keeping 20-plus websites operating requires discipline by the developers and the administrators of the infrastructure, and a strong system architecture helps us isolate issues,” Lafond said, adding that staff is on call 24/7 and on site every day from 6 am to 11 pm. Updates are approved regularly and quickly by a team of content managers.
Lafond has seen his job grow exponentially at HHS.gov from a single site when he started as an IT manager nine years go to nearly two dozen under his supervision that now log up to 4 million visitors a month.
They include HHS.gov, HealthCare.gov, Flu.gov, StopBullying.gov, FoodSafety.gov, StopMedicareFraud.gov, SurgeonGeneral.gov, Fitness.gov, GlobalHealth.gov, Finder.HealthCare.gov, and others. The newest, launched in September, is HHS.gov/DigitalStrategy. There are more to come.
Lafond said he’s adhered to the federal Shared Services Strategy, developing information for use in mobile formats. Right now, two HHS websites have mobile features; more will be available next year, he said.
He’s also collaborating with other agencies, such as the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, helping to develop one of its newest sites, betobaccofree.gov, that went live Nov. 15.
Sanjay Koyani, the center’s deputy director for strategy, said Lafond helped the center repackage its information to make it easier for citizens to retrieve information.
“The FDA is getting great power out of HHS,” he said. “It’s more robust than we would have been able to deliver.”
Koyani said the process brings knowledge together from HHS and FDA, and “making sure there’s a level of synergy. It’s easier to have the parent company give the public a one-stop shop.”
Fred Smith, the technology team lead at CDC’s electronic media branch, said he works closely with Lafond and his team sharing technical advice.
Like the FDA, the CDC website is not part of the HHS web offerings, but Lafond’s team regularly helps with advice on using the Percussion Content Management System (CMS). In exchange, Smith’s team regularly gives HHS.gov advice on content syndication, a technique CDC started to take web content and make it available for other.
“We share a common vision about how web technology should work, using the technology the best way we can to deliver our content to the public,” Smith said.