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Hands Across the Water
U.S., E.U. Researchers Test Boundaries of Technology that Separate Us and Common IT/Policy Needs That Unite Us
For the DGRC

U.S./EU Information Integration

" Researchers:
   Anthony Cresswell
   Theresa Pardo
" Project profile:   Modeling the Social and Technical Processes of Interorganizational Information Integration
" European projects:

There's nothing quite like the look on a European's face when biting into the bloated, doughy pastry Americans call a "croissant." The smallest things can highlight the differences in our cultures. Yet in the most important respect, we have everything in common - our shared belief in democracy and its practical execution in federated systems.

As a result, despite differences in languages, currencies, and regulations, American Digital Government researchers and their European counterparts examine many of the same issues of governmental organization. A a result, despite differences in languages, currencies, and regulations, U.S. Digital Government researchers and their European counterparts examine many of the same issues of governmental organization. This fall and winter, American researchers from the Center for Technology in Government at SUNY-Albany will meet with European colleagues from the Universities of Manchester and Salford, UK and the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy to discuss common challenges.

They will come together during two workshops, the first in Albany, the second in Manchester.

The fall Albany workshop will focus on the information integration models under development by the CTG. The winter Manchester workshop will focus on models of IT support for urban regeneration and overall issues of model use in support of eGovernment IT projects. Both meetings, and a third, final workshop, which will bring together researchers from other ITR-funded collaborations, are sponsored by the NSF. The hope is that international teams will learn from each other - and ultimately save money, by not re-inventing each other's wheels.

"There's a terrific amount of good work being done over there," says Anthony Cresswell, Deputy Director of the CTG, "There's a lot of similarity in terms of federated governments from the EU to nation-states to sub-states and provinces. They've been at this as long - in some cases longer - than we have."

The UK researchers are contributing to the IntelCities Project (alternate link) a multi-partnered venture in which 18 European cities, 20 companies and 36 research groups have come together, according to its Web site "to pool advanced knowledge and experience of electronic government, planning systems and citizen participation from across Europe."

The Italian academics are involved in a similarly ambitious cross-national project, COSPA, the Consortium for Open Source in Public Administration, which works to create open standards and open source software for European government administration.

Albany's CTG has many initiatives to research and advise on the interactions between government and technology. In this case, they will particularly focus on their NSF-funded project, "Modeling the Social and Technical Processes of Interorganizational Information Integration" which models information integration processes in justice and health agencies in the United States. (See previous coverage.)

The commonality for all three groups is the challenge of achieving IT innovation in complex, multi-organizational settings.

"We recognized that we were examining the same questions and using similar modeling techniques. Each of the teams is interested in enriching practice and exploring practical value," says Theresa Pardo, Deputy Director of the CTG, "For now we are collaborating on research methods. The purpose of meeting is so we can ultimately partner on real-world scenarios."

The technological issues alone would be daunting for any computer science researcher - such situations usually mean having to integrate multiple databases, often written in different computer - and human - languages. But these researchers concentrate on systems dynamics - the mind-spinningly complex personal and organizational interactions that the technological solutions are designed to help solve.
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The kind of modeling arena is social-technical, what happens in multi-organizational systems" says Cresswell, "It's a very complicated mixture of social and technical phenomena going back and forth. It's not like particle physics where there's already an established paradigm." Cresswell cites the Pulitzer-prizing winning bestseller Soul of a New Machine as a dramatization of that interplay: "It showed how the design of a new computer was influenced as much by its creators' social dynamics as their engineering knowledge."

If researchers can accurately model the interactions and reactions of all the stakeholders in a given situation, they can best advise on how to design information systems that can handle potential events. For example, how do you balance issues of privacy and access in an automated health care system? Could the lessons learned there be applied to designing a system for checking identities at national borders? These are the sorts of questions these researchers deal with every day.

In sharing their experiences with their European counterparts, perhaps they will discover that these issues generalize across multiple settings and contexts, says Pardo, "At the very least we expect it will help us to create models that can become more sensitive to different environments."

If there might seem some irony in the need for people who work on breaking new ground in the uses of technology to meet face to face, Cresswell points out that the collaboration is actually already a demonstration of digital community. "There isn't any other way we could have done it as fast as we did. We had to send so many drafts back and forth so quickly it could never have been done without electronic communications."

Cresswell says he's looking forward to the interchange and seeing what he will gain from his European colleagues, "It's all new ground, there's not a lot of examples of how to make this work, it's a voyage of discovery, it's great that NSF is willing to put out the money - the Europeans are very enthusiastic, it's very positive so far."