DTIC chief heads DOD Web effort

Last month when officials in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (OSDPA) wanted to set up a World Wide Web site containing information about Bosnia, they turned to the Defense Technical Information Center for help.

Kurt Molholm, DTIC's administrator, said it took the agency "about four hours to get the BosniaLINK site up.... They came to us on a Friday morning, and we had it running that afternoon." This, Molholm said, shows DTIC's mastery of a technology that goes to the core of its operations: helping users in DOD, contractor and academic communities easily access the 2 million-plus scientific and technical documents the agency has amassed in the 50 years since its founding in 1945.

The protocols of the Web, Molholm said, go a long way toward answering one of the key questions of any information-based enterprise: finding the right piece or pieces of information easily. "We recognized that, ironically, the more information you have, the less you might really have because you have become so overburdened looking for it.... Our focus is to help people pull out of that big information stream the informational golden nugget they need to do their job."

In DTIC's case, that meant helping users sift through bibliographic information on numerous topics, including German and Japanese documents captured at the end of World War II by its predecessor agency, the Air Documents Division of the Intelligence Department of the Air Technical Service. This data, Molholm said, includes information on the German V-1 and V-2 rocket program spirited out of eastern Germany ahead of occupying Soviet armies.

After the war, management of these documents, as well as the Navy Research Collection of the Library of Congress, was taken over by the Armed Service Technical Agency. In the 1960s the agency was called the Defense Documentation Center, only to be renamed DTIC in the 1970s. DTIC remained under the control of the Defense Logistics Agency until the early '90s, when it was transferred to the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and technology.

DTIC and its predecessor agencies quickly adopted computer technology, developing computerized databases in the 1960s. According to Molholm, DTIC developed its own in-house research capabilities in information search and retrieval in the late '70s "so we could discover better ways of finding and transferring information." This research effort, Molholm added, resulted in what he called "one of the first searchable bibliographic databases in 1979." Today that database—the Defense, Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Online System—serves as the keystone of DTIC's on-line capability.

The capabilities of the Internet quickly attracted the interest of DTIC, said Molholm, who joined the agency in 1985.

"We could see that the world was going to be tied together by networks...and recognized that there was a lot of information out there, and there must be a way to find what you want," he said.

DTIC set up a small group to explore the potential of the Internet "and find tools to help our customers." That group set up list servers and gophers and then "found something new: the World Wide Web."

DTIC first used the Web to make accessing databases easier for its customers, Molholm said. The agency also quickly exploited the ability of Web software to link information located at a variety of sites running on a number of platforms to set up LabLINK, which Molholm described as "the first network to link all the DOD labs together."

The small DTIC Web crew, which currently numbers about 15 people, also surfed the Web to observe how other federal agencies used—or misused—the new medium. This exploration led the DTIC crew to conclude that DOD had one of the "worst" sites on the Web, Molholm said.

DTIC developed a prototype Web home page for DOD, brought it to OSDPA and launched DefenseLINK, the main DOD Web site, last spring.

DefenseLINK's design "was our own best advertisement," Molholm said, leading to a new sideline in the development of Web pages and sites for several DOD organizations (see sidebar, page 24.) As a result, over the past year Molholm has seen the good, the bad and the ugly on the Web and has developed a few guidelines for anyone wanting to establish a presence:

* Don't get too fancy with graphics. "If it takes people two minutes to draw the first page, it's too fancy."

* Don't have any dead links. "This undermines your credibility...also don't put out `Under Construction' signs."

* Do use GIFs of agency personnel but don't make them pre-eminent. "We're becoming a faceless society. I like the idea I can put my picture on our home page. It makes it more human."

* Always keep the information you want to get out foremost in mind rather than falling for the latest in Web glitz. "A lot of commercial pages tell me how good they are, but they don't tell me much more."

As Molholm shepherds DTIC into its 51st year, he knows the Web and new tools, such as Java from Sun Microsystems Inc., will pose new challenges as well as provide new opportunities for the agency.

As for Molholm himself, a longtime DLA employee who started out programming mainframes in assembly language, he has yet to learn the far-easier language of the Web, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).

Why not? His answer goes to the heart of the DTIC mission, making information easily accessible to anyone, not just computer jocks.

"My Web people tell me I could learn HTML in 15 or 20 minutes. I tell them to find a way to do it in three minutes because then everyone will want to learn," Molholm said.

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