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May 22, 2000

Experts say research can fill gaps in IT

At DG.O 2000 conference, foundation reveals results of academic projects

By Thomas R. Temin
GCN Staff

LOS ANGELES—Digital government is a great idea hobbled by inadequate technology in database access, data integration, security, and records storage and retrieval, but academic research can help bridge the technology gap.

That theme emerged last week during the National Science Foundation’s DG.O 2000 conference. NSF organized DG.O—short for digital government dot org—to show off early results from NSF computing research grants, said Larry Brandt, program manager for NSF’s Digital Government Research Program.

DG.O was co-hosted by the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute and Columbia University’s Digital Government Research Center, both recipients of NSF grants for government-related research.

The government’s program managers and chief information officers must exploit current commercial technology to accomplish their missions, but NSF, through its academic grants, is exploring technologies that could be beneficial five years from now, Brandt said.

“We don’t have a mission other than research,” he said.

Keith Thurston, the General Services Administration’s deputy associate administrator for governmentwide policy, complained that storage technology isn’t up to the task of maintaining government records for the long term. Paper records, he said, had expert librarians and archivists, but electronic records systems do not include the tools necessary to ensure longtime storage or retrieval.

“We still have records from ancient Egypt, but we lose our own data from seven years ago,” Thurston said, citing a recent loss of meteorological data during a conversion to a new system.

Keynote speaker Thomas Kalil, special assistant to President Clinton for economic policy, said agencies need to become “culturally in tune with granting academic research on their missions.”

Several grant recipients demonstrated prototype systems that could eventually have widespread application in government.

Eduard Hovy, a researcher and associate professor at the USC institute, said few, if any, organizations other than the federal government need to integrate and give the public access to information from thousands of databases. “It’s not doable today. There’s no database suction engine,” he said.

A natural understanding

Hovy ran a prototype database query engine that understood natural language questions and then returned only relevant information. Using information about gasoline market conditions dating back 20 years and stored on dozens of disparate databases, the institute is developing the engine for the Energy Department.

Hanan Samet, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland, has developed a browser specifically for visualizing the relationships between layers in a spatial database. It lets users step through records without the repeated data re-sorting required by conventional relational database queries.

Robert Balzer, another USC professor, showed a system for automatically authoring and administering surveys using commercial software tools. Agencies such as the Census Bureau spend hours writing surveys and the scripts to move the answers into databases and to access the data via the Web, he said.

During fiscal 2000 and 2001, NSF’s Digital Government Research Program will have distributed $12.5 million in grants, plus $3.1 million from other agencies.

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