German Government online

Manfred Bogen, Marion Borowski, Guido Hansen, and Michael Lenz

GMD – German National Research Center for Information Technology
D-53754 Sankt Augustin, Germany

Manfred.Bogen@gmd.de, Marion.Borowski@gmd.de,
Guido.Hansen@gmd.de, and Michael.Lenz@gmd.de

Abstract
The Press and Information Office of the Federal Government of Germany, the public relations department of the German Government, has been on the Web since 1996 as a complement to conventional publication methods. It acts as an entry point for the German Government referring to the Web pages and servers of the German Government itself, other German constitutional bodies, German embassies, Permanent Missions and information centers, and other German institutions. It started with existing information material, converted to HTML. Due to the national mandate and due to the information of public concern in this Web site, additional requirements had to be fulfilled: A highly automated information processing around the clock, a high security level implemented, and online ordering of booklets and actual information (Webcasting). The paper describes how we succeeded together with our co-operation partners to bring the German Government represented by the Press and Information Office into the Web. Naturally it covers only some parts of our two-years-project which ended in March, 1998.

Keywords
World Wide Web (WWW); Security; Webcasting, Database integration; Work flow management

1. Introduction

Political leaders need accurate and thorough information about national and international events. The Press and Information Office of the Federal Government of Germany (shortened to BPA in German) is in charge to provide them. Additionally, the BPA has to provide the public with political information and is responsible for public relations work abroad, in co-operation with the foreign ministry.

Fulfilling these tasks, the BPA is online and in the World Wide Web (WWW) since 1996 as a result of an Internet project with GMD and its partners FSD and gekko [6]. The BPA information offer comprises about 40,000 HTML pages in German, English, French, and Spanish. It also leads to the Web pages of other German constitutional bodies and institutions.

2. Information around the clock

The BPA Web server contains three different types of information: rather static information like reports about German history, the political system, the economy, and the culture, semi-actual information like the announcement of events or current reports, and time critical material like press releases or daily news.

Due to their topicality most articles of the latter kind are immediately and automatically converted into HTML pages and published on the Web server. This mechanism was developed and implemented by our co-operation partner gekko [6]. The other documents are converted manually by gekko during normal working hours. In general, gekko is responsible for all the editing work.

Fig. 1. Information around the clock.

The input is provided by the BPA, the German government and other third-party agencies, including the FSD (Frankfurter Societät) our second co-operation partner (Fig. 1). GMD is responsible for installation, operation and enhancement of the services and machines [4]. In addition, GMD implemented effective quality of service guarantees, which relate to the operation of the services (24 hours a day, 7 days a week), backup of the data, and reaction upon any failures.

3. Online ordering

Some Web pages deal with free of charge booklets of the BPA which inform about interesting political and social events. Those documents are to be read online, to be downloaded, or to be received on paper via paper post. Until August 1997, the whole mail ordering process was very inefficient due to multiple medium changes: People had to fill out Web forms which were printed and revised by the BPA in paper format. Then, they were sent to a distribution company acting on behalf of the BPA and entered into a local computer there for availability checking and shipping.

To make the work flow of the ordering of booklets more efficient, the BPA decided to automate it by using databases on the Web. An Oracle database and Web server was chosen as software platform. Since September 1997, the Web users can visit a Web page with new functionality. Only the available pamphlets are offered for ordering. Users can start advanced searches to find relevant material, put them in their virtual shopping cart, and finally order them. The orders are written into the database out of which the distribution company receives a file to fill its own computer system. In addition, the BPA has the ability to edit titles and additional information of the almost 200 booklets via a special user interface, to retrieve actual numbers about the usage of the ordering service and to make plausibility checks [1].

4. Webcasting

People interested in the information offered by the BPA can simply pick it from the Web site (pull technology) independent of time and place. But this is not feasible in all cases. Journalists e.g. do not have the time and willingness to surf the Web all day long checking for new information and pulling them for their purposes. So, it was decided to complement the traditional pull approach through push technology ("Webcasting").

Existing solutions from Netscape, Microsoft, Marimba etc. have their drawbacks like proprietary protocols and special ports that are blocked by firewalls. Looking at the BPA clientele and their capabilities, e-mail was found an appropriate alternative to implement push technology. The e-mail-based Webcasting service is implemented as one private, closed, confidential, and moderated LISTSERV distribution list. Users can register for one or several out of 11 topics like press releases, background information, actual subjects, and facts and figures about Germany.

5. Security

Housing the official Web server of the Federal Government of Germany made our machines a very attractive target for potential hackers. So we had to protect our site very carefully. Obviously the different groups which contribute to the Web site as well as the accessing users all need different access rights. For a maximum security we realized the least privilege principle.

To protect our machines, services and the data we rely on the principle of defence in depth [2]. In general all machines are protected to the outside by dedicated firewalls. Our second layer of defence is made up of the security features offered by the Web, database and FTP servers. Finally, the security mechanisms of the underlying UNIX operating system make up the basic protection layer [3]. The overall security rule is that everything which is not explicitly permitted is prohibited. To further improve our security we only start the absolutely necessary services and co-operate with national and international security bodies.

6. End user acceptance

In the past 18 months the number of hits for `www.government.de' grew from 300,000 up to 5 million in January 1998 (without counting requests for intermediately cached documents). According to the clientele of the Web site every second access was from a German host. Most of them came from private people or business but also from Members of Parliament and Universities.

Since the Web server of the German government provides information in four languages (German, English, French and Spain) it is attractive for many people in the world. However, Germans were mainly interested in the information about inner affairs while people from other countries mostly accessed those parts of the Web site dealing with foreign affairs and general information about Germany.

With respect to Web-casting the number of subscribers grew from 30 people to more than 1300 in five months. About 200 articles a month are sent to the clientele of this service.

7. What's next?

In order to benefit from the possibilities of Internet and the Web especially related to dynamic, feedback and two way interaction, we expect enhanced Web pages and technology for German Government Online within the near future. The Press and Information Office is eager to organize its static information offers more and more dynamically. This includes large text information and multimedia information like images, audio and video streams. Related to the work flow, the third-party information providers will be integrated even more into the information offer. In general, the German Government is on its way to an open government [5].

References

[1] M. Bogen, M. Lenz, A. Reichpietsch, and P. Simons, Is the Web a secure environment for electronic commerce?, in: Proceedings of WebNet 97, Toronto, AACE.
[2] D.B. Chapman and E.D. Zwicky, Building Internet Firewalls. O'Reilly and Associates, Inc., 1995.
[3] S. Garfinkel and G. Spafford, Practical UNIX and Internet Security, O'Reilly and Associates, Inc., 1996.
[4] C. Liu, J. Peek, R. Jones, B. Buus and A. Nye, Managing Internet Information Services. O'Reilly and Associates Inc., 1994.
[5] T. Macaulay, WWW clearinghouse for government information, in: Advance Proceedings of the Second International WWW Conference '94, 17–20 October 1994, Chicago, pp. 683--689.
[6] GMD, gekko, FSD, Online-Informationsangebot für das Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung im Internet, Technische Handreichung, Version 1.6, 1997.