CHICAGO, June 2 (UPI) -- When President George W. Bush lifts off aboard Air Force One from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., he logs on to the Internet.
He then places a secure telephone call -- online -- to a Cabinet member. Other members of the Cabinet and his staff can phone Bush while he is aloft, and reach him via a secret, secure Internet connection.
Is this some contemporary science fiction by Tom Clancy or another literary artist of his ilk?
Hardly. The technology's proof of concept is being deployed this week aboard an "executive aircraft" at Andrews, John Winters, vice president of N.E.T. Federal, a government contractor in Dulles, Va., told United Press International.
"They're looking to enhance the performance of the aircraft," Vern Bartz, a senior systems engineer, also at N.E.T. Federal, told UPI. "They decided to go on a converged IP (Internet Protocol) platform for voice and data."
Long a laggard on the Internet, today the federal government is deploying some of the most cutting-edge Internet applications -- sometimes, as with the Air Force One scenario, even ahead of the private sector.
Back in the mid-1990s, during the Clinton administration, the government started an array of so-called e-government, or electronic government, projects. The Internal Revenue Service even began offering certain individual taxpayers the option of filing their tax forms online.
Otherwise, however, most federal projects were chimeras -- generating publicity and little else, experts said.
"Governments have spent a lot of energy and money online," said Scott Burns, chief executive officer of GovDocs, a government software supplier in St. Paul, Minn. "But they needed to actually get usage out of these investments.
"This is now a case today of the rubber meeting the road. They need to get people to their Web sites," he told UPI.
The State Department recently revamped its Internet presence and is using it to change the way it recruits prospects for the Foreign Service.
The department has begun using an "e-mail subscription management system," Burns said. "They've started using e-mail to get people back to their Web site on a regular basis."
State Department job applicants can click on certain employment categories of interest and the system will "send them an alert by e-mail when the file is updated," he explained.
This differs from State's old solution, which sent everyone who ever applied for a job at the department a list of all openings, every once in a while.
"They were trying a one-size-fits-all solution," Burns said.
Not too far away in the nation's capital, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is coming into the 21st century with a compelling online offering for farmers, enabling them to apply for government-backed loans to run their businesses.
"We're pretty excited about it ... we're off and running with this beast," said Dave McEvoy, a spokesman for Equity Consultants Inc., the USDA's software contractor, in Glenwood, Iowa.
The loan program started during the 1940s, and the government tried to modernize the data gathering process for the program over the years but failed.
"They had thousands of offices in the Farm Services Agency, scattered all over the country," McEvoy told UPI. "If someone wanted a report on how many hog farmers were participating in the loan program, they couldn't give an answer. They had the data, but no way to retrieve it."
Now the government is putting that information online, in secure servers, to be generated at local offices by the farmers themselves.
"This will help with business management and planning," said McEvoy, whose company is training USDA personnel on the Web Equity Manager system at a facility near Iowa's computer research area, dubbed "Sili-corn Valley."
The USDA program officers hope to have the farm information completely online by next year, McEvoy said. "That is their goal," he added.
In Bethesda, Md., the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission recently began collaborating with other federal agencies to create a "one stop shopping place, online, for information about product recalls," Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the commission, told UPI.
The CPSC has recall jurisdiction over 15,000 products in the United States but other federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration have similar authorities over other products, Wolfson said.
"We got the idea when we were studying the impact of recall effectiveness," he said. "One of the barriers is that people don't know where to go to get information. We wanted to make it easier and more convenient for consumers to find that information."
These agencies joined forces to launch the information repository, Recalls.gov, which has generated about 1 million hits since it was launched just before Christmas, Wolfson said.
The site breaks down products into different kinds of categories -- from cars to cosmetics -- and consumers can tab through the sections, seeking relevant information.
Though the government this spring spiked the idea of letting soldiers and sailors vote online -- there were too many technical difficulties -- the project to generate new voter registrations among the online generation of 18-to-24-year-olds on the Internet is moving forward.
Working with the Federal Voting Assistance Program, the Ad Council, the non-profit group funded by Madison Avenue advertising agencies, has launched Registerandvote2004.org. The site provides links that enable young adults to register to vote, said Barbara Shimaitis, senior vice president of the Ad Council in New York City.
"But this generation cannot be reached by TV alone," Shimaitis told UPI.
The Web site is planning a series of banner ads on other sites, as well as the creation of content for text messages to be sent out to cell phones of young users, with updates on election news and related content, she said.
"You can go onto the site, and provide a phone number, and you will receive messages on your phone," Shimaitis said.
The young voters' site -- produced with the agency Golin Harris in Chicago -- also features profiles on young, first-time voters, templates that allow them to craft their own political speech, and a blog, written by a youthful voter.
The producers vet the content before putting it online, though, to prevent the kind of embarrassment faced by the John Kerry presidential campaign this spring when a study showed the blogs associated with his official site were riddled with curse words and other foul language.
"We review everything before it goes online," Shimaitis said.
Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com
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