GILS could soon get the boot

Feds have proposed dropping little-used search standard

Global Information Locator Service Web site

Popular commercial search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN Search might soon replace a 10-year-old government search standard intended as an electronic card catalog of public government information.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology wants to withdraw the Global Information Locator Service (GILS), which it considers to be an obsolete search standard. A July 15 Federal Register notice states that recalling the standard seems justified because most agencies now use commercial search tools to help people locate government information.

GILS — which is also a designated standard under the International Organization (ISO) for Standardization and Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) systems — was developed for indexing all publicly available electronic information so people could easily locate what they needed. But neither the federal government nor industry widely adopted it.

The concept was chiefly advocated by Eliot Christian, the architect of GILS and manager of data and information systems at the U.S. Geological Survey. Christian declined to comment for this story.

The Paperwork Reduction Act mandates that federal agencies use GILS- compliant software, but they largely ignored the standard.

GILS' proponents envisioned a search standard that would make it possible for a user of one computer system to search and retrieve information from other systems without knowing those systems' search syntax. The standard indexes information by title, subject, author, date and location.

Advocates believed GILS would let people search via Google, MSN Search, FirstGov or Yahoo, for example, and direct them to their desired information on the first attempt. Supporters also hoped GILS would guide future historians to the right electronic sources. But FirstGov has not adopted the GILS standard.

GILS won't be considered for the FirstGov Web portal's new search engine. Last week, the General Services Administration collected responses to a competitive task order proposal for a new FirstGov search engine, a proposal that omits GILS as a required standard.

Instead, the proposal asks bidders to use standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) "to ensure interoperability between government search services and heterogeneous data sources."

M.J. Pizzella, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications, which oversees FirstGov, said the lack of any mention of GILS "must be very disappointing for those who have embraced GILS." But, she added, it is important "to stay flexible and move with the trends."

Members of the library community, who accepted GILS when others didn't, say they are upset that NIST is considering dropping GILS as a mandatory standard and that GSA is excluding it from the FirstGov search service.

Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations, said the community is concerned that the W3C standard proposed for FirstGov is not a true ISO standard.

"It would not allow the public to be confident that they were getting access to all government information with a single search," she said.

FirstGov developers will work with librarians so their systems can communicate with the portal's search service, Pizzella said. "It's a group we are very concerned about," she said. "We are going to make sure that we stay interoperable for them."

GSA officials say they hope the FirstGov's new search engine will reach a wider audience by enforcing W3C standards. The consortium develops formats, such as Extensible Markup Language and HTML, to ensure interoperability among Web-based systems.

GSA has asked vendors to use W3C standards to keep the government in sync with industry. The government and private sector have widely accepted W3C technologies for exchanging data.

Keith Thurston, assistant deputy associate administrator at GSA's Office of Technology Strategy, said requiring GILS-compliance for the new FirstGov contract could have limited the competition. "The federal government is moving toward the adoption of commercial standards," he said.

GSA officials said they knew that GILS' days as a FIPS were numbered. "We obviously are not going to go that way with our search because that standard is getting ready to be recalled," Pizzella said.

J. Timothy Sprehe, an information resources management consultant and a Federal Computer Week columnist, said he does not think agencies will object to NIST's recall, now that most government officials use commercial search engines.

"The vast majority of agencies viewed GILS as an unfunded mandate," Sprehe said. "GILS got token observance [from agencies], and then they forgot about it."

GILS is marked 'delete'

A government-developed Internet search standard known as the Global Information Locator Service (GILS) could soon be relegated to the dustbin of history. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has proposed pulling GILS as a federal standard.

GILS has several defining characteristics:

  • It is a relatively simple search technology compared with technologies such as Google.
  • It works by indexing publicly available electronic information by title, subject, author, date and location.
  • It has many users in international, state and academic libraries.

— Aliya Sternstein

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