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One step forward, two steps back
DG partners manage the push-pull dynamic of government research partnerships

dg.02002 Convenes
stephen goldsmith, photo by mack reed - USC/ISI and DGRC

Henry Weigel (right) discusses his agency's EDC project with research partner Jose-Luis Ambite of USC/ISI

More than two years into a massive data-integration project by researchers at the Information Sciences Institute at USC and Columbia University, Henry S. Weigel was anticipating an important milestone.

The researchers had been working on electrical power plant information supplied by Weigel, special assistant to the director of the office of energy markets and end use at the Energy Information Administration (EIA). They planned to make the data available for the first time on a state-by-state basis.

When the results came in, "I was really impressed with the speed and detail," Weigel said. "There's oodles of information. You can run a mouse over a footnote number and the footnote (text) will automatically pop up."

But just as the new data configuration was complete, someone changed the EIA's web page. "I have no control over the people who do the electrical data," Weigel explained, adding that he didn't even know the change was coming. "They're in a different office."

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Researchers managed to adjust, and the system is up and running, said Yigal Arens, co-director of the Digital Government Research Center, and a USC/ISI member of the team. But the incident illustrates the experience of many government partners in the National Science Foundation's DG program: two steps forward, one step back.

On the one hand, the researchers are able to expand and enhance programs and services much faster, and farther, than government would on its own, Weigel said.

State and local officials had been clamoring for the state breakouts on plant information for years, but, "with the declining government budgets, I doubt it would have happened without the researchers," Weigel explained.

On the other hand, the research programs sometimes collide with other functions within an agency. And they add to the partners' workload, said Weigel, who planned to spend a day training to install and upgrade the system. "You never know how it's going to work unless you actually use it."

Getting to where you can use a system is also an issue. Researchers focus on their scientific quests; government partners want practical answers to concrete problems now.

"Academics need something that excites them, that advances the area they're interested in," said Charles Rothwell, associate director of the National Center for Health Statistics. "We want something that works now. There's always that push-pull."

Rothwell has been working with Gary Marchionini at the University of North Carolina and other researchers on data access, visualization and table browsers. Rothwell said the researchers have been very helpful.

"We've done very little to build bridges between academia in computer science and government, except for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)," said Rothwell. "We need to do more of it."

The table browser in particular will allow users to access the expertise of the statisticians who developed the data, not just the raw numbers, he said.

"Am I doing a service by giving a data set and not providing the table parameters that give it meaning?" Rothwell explained. "We need to build systems that answer questions automatically, instead of just putting the data out there and saying, 'God bless, good luck and don't bother us.'"

Cathryn Dippo, associate commissioner at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is collaborating with digital government researchers on the multi-year FedStats project, a one-stop shop for federal statistics. The best thing about the program is how it has inspired government participants, she said.

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"The research project has brought FedStats agencies close together, thinking long-term," she said. "It's more of a case of showing us things we can do, ideas and ways of thinking, not handing us software."

One frustration is that although the research phase of the project is funded, there's no real money to support production, Dippo said. Another is that the research project is so far ahead of government in technological maturity.

The table browser, for example, requires data to be encoded with XML markup language; the government data is not. It makes no sense to develop a system without XML, however, because XML is the future; the government will get there eventually, Dippo said.

dg.02002 Convenes
yigal arens + tim petersen, photo by mack reed - USC/ISI and DGRC

USC/ISI's Yigal Arens chats with Tucson P.D. Det. Tim Petersen

"I wouldn't want them to do something that puts us back," she explained.

Tucson police Det. Tim Petersen draws inspiration from his digital government project. Petersen has been working with Hsinchun Chen of the University of Arizona on Coplink, a project to integrate isolated police databases and to enable information to be shared with other agencies.

"I see Coplink as a tool not only to bring police department information, but to bring law enforcement together around the country," Petersen said.

Michael Levi, project manager at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said his agency's collaboration gave staff "a deeper and broader understanding of what it means to be a user, of using a tool to accomplish a task rather than as an artifact." And oh yeah, the vision thing. "What it gave us was space for the staff to exercise imagination," Levi said.