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State website has universal following

by Christy Chalmers

Nevada’s legislative Internet site has a universal following.

How else do you explain visitors from Malaysia, India, New Zealand, Lebanon, Singapore, Japan and a dozen other distant places? Or the 2,798 hits registered from users in the United Kingdom?

The foreign visitors, who all logged on in the past month, are among the 25,000 to 30,000 hits recorded on an average day at the site – not bad for a place that didn’t exist prior to 1997. And the site’s caretakers are expecting a bigger audience as technology improves and more people begin using the Internet to track Nevada’s legislative branch.

“The potential for Internet access is tremendous, and we’re just starting to see it,” said Lorne Malkiewich, director of the state legislative counsel bureau and an overseer of the site. “I think our demand for this type of technology is only going to go up.”

The site was launched shortly before the 1997 legislative session. It includes meeting agendas, places and times, an archive of legislation and background information such as meeting minutes, bill drafts and revisions and voting records, Nevada laws and information on the state’s legislators. A state phone directory to a list of open jobs, Supreme Court opinions and links to other local and state government sites is also available.

During the 1999 legislative session, the site averaged 40,000 hits a day. Meetings were also broadcast over the Internet, allowing those with the necessary accessories to listen in. Legislators could receive and send e-mail instantly through their state-issued laptop computers.

Though some legislators have been slow to embrace the technology, more are using it, and the site is being steadily improved and expanded.

“In 1997, the site was brand new and it didn’t always work. By ’99, they’d had a little time to get used to it, and it worked well,” Malkiewich said. “The legislators love it. One thing they don’t get enough of is feedback from constituents. This allows them to do that.”

Malkiewich predicted upgrades in the state’s equipment will allow video broadcasts over the Internet for the 2001 session. The state Capitol, which sits about a hundred yards from the legislative building, will also be wired, connecting the executive offices to the legislative.

While the site is popular with the legislative counsel bureau and state workers, most hits are coming from external sources, Malkiewich said.

Nevada’s webmasters are setting a standard for their counterparts, he added.

“One of the things I hear is ‘Your site is wonderful, and our information systems guy is going to call yours because we want to do that,'” said Malkiewich. “We went from one of the few states that didn’t have a site before the 1997 session to one of the best by the end of the 1997 session.”

Malkiewich said usage since the 1999 session seems to match interim events – meeting broadcasts usually draw a few dozen hits. Most of the users are seeking information on state law, though Malkiewich said details on who seeks what are not tracked.

“It spikes at certain points when we have meetings, but the peak periods are during the night, not the day,” he said. “The down period appears to be from about 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then it picks up, which suggests people are doing a lot of research.”

The webmasters do solicit comments, and they keep information about the types of computers that are hitting the site. Malkiewich says they want to balance esthetics with the wide range of computing capabilities.

Currently, Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers hit the site most often, followed by America Online, Netscape and others. But WebTV users make up almost 1 percent of those accessing the site, and that’s a trend to monitor, Malkiewich said.

“That’s one of the challenges our webmasters face. One of the things we need to work on is compatibility,” he said. “We could make the state seal jump off the page or explode, but you don’t want to load up the site with features that will take a long time to load.”

Besides, he noted, the Web site isn’t out to sell anything, unless users are in search of a publication, so flashy graphics aren’t a priority. If the comments received so far are any indication, people are getting what they want.

“The feedback has been very good,” said Malkiewich. “I know people are listening in. I suspect it’s going to go up.”