State governments average ‘F’ grade on website-metadata tracker

A new online tracker for government websites reveals that most state websites fail to provide basic metadata for their users.
(Getty Images)

An online tracker for government website metadata published this month reveals that most state government homepages fail on basic data practices, a shortcoming that could impede compatibility with artificial intelligence and accessibility.

The new tracker, called “gov metadata,” is part of a project from Luke Fretwell, a former journalist who now runs the tech firm ProudCity, and his son, Elias. The duo have spent the last several months mining the homepages of U.S. government websites for metadata tags, snippets of HTML that provide basic information to the user’s browser, such as the website’s title or written descriptions of its images.

Fretwell told StateScoop he and his son identified 13 basic metadata tags that were commonly used in HTML and began tracking them in government websites. Most federal government received “F” grades for the number of tags they had, an average of 5 out of 13. State governments fared slightly better, but still received an “F” grade overall, averaging just 6 of 13 tags.

Metadata tags help search engines return accurate results for the data each webpage contains. And they can also set properties like which image is used for social media posts, which can influence whether people are inclined to engage with those posts.


More critically, metadata tags affect how websites interface with accessibility tools, such as screen readers for people with low vision or blindness. This is especially true when considering the growing digitization of government benefits and services, which has resulted in more people expecting they can complete tasks entirely online.

“When a screen reader comes in and reads, it pulls information used in the metadata. They’ll say the title of the other page, the description of the page, and then they can back out,” Fretwell said.

He said a lack of good metadata doesn’t make it impossible for screen readers to interact with government websites, but it could make them harder for some users to navigate.

“When you have good metadata practices, it shows that you’re thinking about machine-readable, structured content that’s fully accessible. For government, you really need to be thinking about these components of a webpage that make it really accessible,” he said.

Fretwell also pointed to the many states exploring artificial intelligence, which largely relies on large, structured datasets. He said ensuring good data hygiene, such as properly filling out metadata tags for websites, could make governments’ AI uptake more seamless.


“Government should be making data as structured as it can so that you don’t have to have like a proprietary algorithm to make sense of the data, which is essentially what has to happen now,” he said. “I’m not [a large language model] expert, but this whole AI movement is very much around data, so the more structured the data is, the more helpful a language model would be.”

Fretwell said he hopes his project highlights the importance of metadata tags, especially on government websites, and pushes policymakers and states’ chief data officers to standardize their metadata.

“Data should be accessible, government needs to have a better data strategy. The metadata stuff for the website is just table stakes. But if you don’t have that, and you’re not thinking about that like it’s the digital front door to your community without good hygiene, then how are you going to do it?” Fretwell said. “I think it just kind of exposes the fact that government that the state governments don’t really have a good data strategy.”

Editor’s note: Fretwell is a former employee of Scoop News Group.

Keely Quinlan

Written by Keely Quinlan

Keely Quinlan reports on privacy and digital government for StateScoop. She was an investigative news reporter with Clarksville Now in Tennessee, where she resides, and her coverage included local crimes, courts, public education and public health. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Stereogum and other outlets. She earned her bachelor’s in journalism and master’s in social and cultural analysis from New York University.

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