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DG Community Meets in Record Numbers
Unprecedented attendance and focus on broad policy/practice issues mark opening of dg.o2002

dg.02002 Convenes
lawrence brandt, photo by mack reed - USC/ISI

dg.o Program Manager Lawrence Brandt welcomes the record crowd to dg.o2002

It has been 3 1/2 years since the National Science Foundation's Digital Government program got off the ground, and for the first time, organizers had to turn down requests to present at the group's annual conference, dg.o2002, May 19-22 in Redondo Beach, Calif.

What started as a small, 40-person workshop is now a major national gathering of more than 160 academics, industry reps and government officials.

The number and breadth of conference sessions is unprecedented, and written proceedings are as fat as a phone book.

"What we're seeing is the beginning of a digital government community," said Digital Government Research Center co-director Yigal Arens as he opened the conference presentations Monday.

Subspecialties are starting to coalesce around subjects such as data mining, geographic information systems, technology transfer and metadata, but boundaries remain fluid. Defining digital government is still a work in progress.

"The field is extremely broad, which is what makes it a little difficult to focus interest on it," said Arens, of USC’s Information Sciences Institute. "Usually what is going on in the Digital Government Conference is related to what is going on in government right now."

That explains the ubiquitous references on the conference’s opening day to Sept. 11, and the urgent need for better information management, disaster response and wireless communications to meet the terrorist threat. But more sustained themes are also emerging, especially the critical need to address social science and policy issues along with technical questions.

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"When I started out I viewed the field as only talking about digital technology; I mean look at the name," said Arens. "But you can have the best technology in the world and if you don't address the policy issues and concerns of citizens, it will all be worthless."

Digital government's chameleon quality has propagated some happy, and totally unexpected, confluences. For the first time, people who deliver medical care are seeking a seat at the DG table, Arens said.

At USC, digital government researchers have teamed with transportation and urban infrastructure experts to analyze freight traffic and routing, something planners have been concerned with as long as there have been cities, Arens said. "The good thing about it is we can share the understanding we have developed about IT with another community," he explained.

eduard hovy, photo by mack reed - USC/ISI

dg.o2002 Program Chair Eduard Hovy addresses the conference

Researchers are beginning to look more carefully at the varied e-government needs of different users.

"Kids want to know what they need for their school projects, and we have to find out how to make it easily understandable," said DGRC's Edward Hovy, program chair for this year's conference. "Congress and lawmakers in general want slightly different information than the general population."

The progress, however, is accompanied by a new national sense of vulnerability, and demand for answers now to critical questions related to homeland security. Researchers and policy makers have only just begun to tackle vital security and privacy concerns, Hovy said.

The private sector has eclipsed government in many areas of IT use and adoption, said William L. Scherlis, a former DARPA chief who chaired a National Research Council committee study of promising innovations, and ways to get them out of the labs and into government programs.

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Still, government, with its unique responsibility to extend access to all, and to approve only trustworthy technology, remains a demand leader in many IT research areas, Scherlis said at a workshop Monday. Promising fields include information management, software technology, net infrastructure, security, service APIs, models and simulation, middleware and organizational and social issues. In the more distant future, Scherlis sees individualized government transaction portals; instant bureaucracies, through which agencies like FEMA could take claims and dispense disaster relief in a matter of days instead of weeks, and instant epidemiology, with public health officials detecting disease or bioterrorism outbreaks by monitoring tertiary indicators, such as spikes in over-the-counter medicine sales.

"Government has a national role in creating the public good, and in sponsoring non-appropriable work," Scherlis said. The key to fruitful projects is cross-agency collaboration, he added.

"Few agencies do their own IT research. The Department of Energy, NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, a little bit," he said. Scherlis' committee called for an agency IT innovation fund to foster "risky" projects. "Researchers and users have a shared interest in innovation and capability," Scherlis said.

For all the focus on the long view, quick response to emerging government problems is likely to remain the driving force in digital government research.

"We always thought of digital government as helping citizens, and making government safer, but now that urban warfare looks more and more like a pervasive reality, we can help with that too," said Hovy. "And that's an exciting thing."