Whitehouse.gov Geekery

While my political beliefs are way too complicated for me to ever consider blogging about, I thought I would share a few geeky tidbits on the new White House website.

As you might have noticed, www.whitehouse.gov had a face lift as Barack Obama took office on Tuesday. Thanks to Flickr, user filmoculous, and the beautiful creative commons license I can post this before and after picture here.

Upon further investigation it seems that it is more than just a change in design. These changes seem to lead one to believe that Obama’s rhetoric about open and visible government might not have been just grandiloquence. Here is a snippet from the website:

Transparency – President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise. The President’s executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and that’s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. You can also learn about some of the senior leadership in the new administration and about the President’s policy priorities.

There are some things that I see that support this on the new site.

A Blog

The most noticeable change is the addition of a White House blog. Available on the front page and at the obvious address www.whitehouse.gov/blog it seems that this administration is encouraging citizens communicate and participate. It even says so in the first blog post. Time will tell if this really becomes the platform that I am sure we are all hoping it could be. A chance for real dialogue with our democracy.

The Briefing Room

The Briefing Room is another area of the website that I hope grows with time. In one place they have put links to the blog, proclamations and executive orders, and appointments and nominations. It isn’t that you couldn’t find that information before, it is just nice to have it readily available where logic and reason would lead one to believe it should be.

Email Updates

While not as cool as twitter updates, they have a place you can sign up for email updates. It should be said thought that the old website had it too.

Robots.txt

This last one is a geeky tidbit. It first requires a quick explanation.

In involves a plain text file called robots.txt. In this file, website owners give instructions to web robots. These web robots (also called spiders or web bots) are responsible for traversing the web for the purpose of indexing it. Google uses them to provide us with search results, spammers use them to get email addresses and other tidbits of information on your website.

Upstanding and well-meaning web robots check the robots.txt to see what it should index and what it shouldn’t. For example, let’s say your website is at http://www.yourwebsite.com. Your robots.txt file would be located at http://www.yourwebsite.com/robots.txt.  Let’s also say you used the following in your the file:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

“User-agent” refers to a web robot. * is common notation for “all.” The first line means the next rule applies to all web robots. You could get fancy and have Google’s web robot index different things than Yahoo’s.

The “Disallow: /” tells the web robots not to index any of the pages. / means the top level of your website.

Now that I have that out of the way I can get to my point. Let’s look at the robots.txt file from the previous whitehouse.gov. It is linked here as it is too long to put in this post. 2377 lines of no go to any indexing of the site. Meaning, they blocked sites like Google and Yahoo from any indexing for reults in other places. They didn’t hide it, just kept it buried and only accessible through their website.

Let’s take a look at the new whitehouse.gov robots.txt file.

User-agent: *
Disallow: /includes/

That’s it. It disallows one directory. Long story short, information on www.whitehouse.gov will now be indexable and available through other means.

I can only hope this trend of openess continues. Americans should have the tools to participate in their democracy. The idea of “us” against “them” doesn’t get us anywhere. A recent quote from Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems is pertinent:

“The American concept of democracy is not just of the people and by the people but with the people.”