Architect of information retrieval

Eliot Christian seeks to preserve cataloging traditions in online world

It is impossible to categorize Eliot Christian. He is an advocate for search standards, a developer of a unified emergency warning system and ironically a man obsessed with cataloging the world's information.

For 15 years, Christian, who manages of data and information systems at the U.S. Geological Survey, has prodded governments, industry and interest groups to create an electronic card catalog of human knowledge. But don't confuse him with the founders of Google or Yahoo. He is not after money or fame, admirers say.

Christian's message is that the Internet, which came along 20 years ago, is not a good library. "Yes, you will find something, but you don't know whether you've found the right thing or all the things," he said.

"We know about the Ice Age because we have a bibliographic tradition," Christian said. "The Internet breaks with tradition in a lot of ways. Over the long term, we could sort of look back on this as the beginning of the dark ages."

In battling the digital chaos, Christian is an ardent promoter of the Global Information Locator Service (GILS), which is based on the International Organization for Standardization's specification for information search and retrieval.

GILS, Christian's creation, responds to searches that reference information by title, subject, author, date and location. The original idea was to have employees assign those five labels to each piece of public government information, thereby systematically indexing and filing all public government data.

But government officials dealt GILS a blow last month. National Institute of Standards and Technology officials proposed withdrawing it as a mandatory federal standard because modern search technology has eclipsed it. In another move against GILS, General Services Administration officials decided not to require GILS compliance in their solicitation for a new FirstGov search engine service.

Most agency officials ignore the Paperwork Reduction Act's mandate to maintain GILS-compliant records. They say it is too complicated and time-consuming to hand-code catalog records, Christian said.

However, he thinks people misunderstand what GILS compliance means. Most important records are labeled with metadata, he said, and people simply have to use that existing metadata in their electronic recordkeeping systems.

Christian said that GILS could allow people to search using Google, MSN Search, FirstGov or any search engine and retrieve the right information in one try. GILS could guide historians searching information archives 200 years from now to the right sources.

Besides dreaming of a more organized world of information, Christian has produced tangible results throughout his career. He has invented technologies and collaborated with lawmakers to improve access to government information. He has designed metadata maintenance code, client search software for Web browsers and Extensible Markup Language encoding rules.

In 2000, Christian was co-leader of a G8 project that reached international consensus on using GILS for environmental and natural resources management. A decade ago, he contributed to the Paperwork Reduction Act, and more recently, he helped draft sections of the E-Government Act of 2002.

Christian is now detailed to the Federal Geographic Data Committee, an intergovernmental body created to make geospatial information accessible by anyone. His work encompasses emergency alerts, enterprise architecture and a U.S.-led worldwide environmental monitoring system known as the Global Earth Observation System of Systems. Last month's G8 summit endorsed the system as a way to help control pollution and global warming.

Christian, along with government and private organizations, is working to implement the Common Alerting Protocol, an international standard for all hazard notifications. A single message would rapidly send alerts via e-mail messages, news feeds, television captions, highway billboards, automated phone calls and radio broadcasts.

Brewster Kahle, co-founder of the Internet Archive, said Christian is one of his heroes. Kahle said it is because of people like Christian that the Internet has expanded and done as well as it has.

"Think of Eliot Christian as a model civil servant," Kahle said. "He is not after his own commercial success. He is trying to shape society."


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The Eliot Christian file

Interests: Reading and science.

Proudest accomplishment: He received the Madison Award in 1998 for championing the public's right to know, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Library Association, and American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Family: His wife, Marcia, is a volunteer at DisasterHelp.gov, where she maintains the database of all sources pertaining to disaster management. They have three daughters: Sikandra, a senior at Swarthmore College; Theresa, a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Sheila, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Northern Virginia.

Education: Christian holds a bachelor of arts in English from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

Career highlight: "Still coming," he said.

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