Magazine article Government Finance Review

The Internet: What's It Good for, Anyway?

Magazine article Government Finance Review

The Internet: What's It Good for, Anyway?

Article excerpt

For the past year, the American public has been inundated with hyperbole about the vast quantities of information available on the Internet and how access to it will change the way they live and do business. But when faced with the practical problems of finding this information and the day-to-day work pressures, it behooves everyone to pause for a moment and ask, "How can the Internet actually help us do our jobs?"

The purpose of the following article is to address this question by describing several Internet sites that contain information of use to state and local finance officials. The selected sites represent only a small fraction of the total number but have the advantages of being easy to access and largely responsible for maintaining the information that they provide.

State and local officials need a wide range of information to successfully carry out their assigned functions. Cash managers and debt administrators need access to interest rates and information about the current investment climate. Budget officials need price indexes and cost trends, as well as information about the demographic and economic changes that are occurring in their jurisdictions. All finance officials need information about federal legislative, regulatory, and budgetary activities in order to assess the impact of federal legislation on their jurisdictions and successfully compete for dwindling federal funds.

In spite of all the hyperbole, the Internet does offer several advantages over prior methods for accessing information. First, information on the Internet is available when it is needed, day or night, and can be obtained by individuals at their personal computers without having to leave their office. Second, the information is at least as current as its printed counterpart and can be accessed without the delay of being ordered. Third, in many cases the information can be searched in a way that reduces time spent skimming through documents to find it.

There are disadvantages as well, not the least of which is the need to learn a new set of jargon. Although this article will minimize the use of jargon, it is important to explain several key terms. The first is the term "World Wide Web" or simply "Web," which refers to a type of Internet site that presents information in textual and graphical form, often linking it with text and graphics elsewhere at the site or at another site. The Web is fast becoming the method of choice for presenting information on the Internet and is the only type of site discussed below.

The second term is "Uniform Resource Locator" or "URL." This refers to the Web site's Internet address and usually begins with the characters "http://www." In order to access any of the Web sites discussed in this article, it is essential to have a connection to the Web (usually purchased through an Internet service provider or through CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, etc.) and a Web "browser" (i.e., software that is capable of displaying the Web site's text and graphics on a computer screen). Once these two items are in hand, a Web site can be visited by setting the Web browser to the URL address of the Web site of interest.

U.S. Bureau of the Census Web Site URL=http://www.census.gov

As one would imagine, the U.S. Bureau of the Census Web site offers a huge amount of data about the demographic and economic characteristics of the United States and its geographic and political subdivisions. This information is organized into a number of subdirectories at the site, including:

* Population and Housing: data obtained from the 1990 Census of Housing, the Current Population Survey, and the American Housing Survey;

* Economy: highlights from the latest U.S. Economic Indicators series, as well as the County Business Patterns and Statistics of U.S. Businesses surveys; and

* Geography: population, housing, and economic data by political and geographic subdivisions, including metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), counties, states, and U. …

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