Consortium stumps for tech use

A federal consortium formed to promote use of the World Wide Web among U.S. agencies is positioned to become a major global player in the proliferation of Web technology and applications.

The National Science Foundation's Federal Web Consortium, which was started three years ago, is growing rapidly within the federal government and is working to ally with state, local and non-U.S. government information technology organizations as well as commercial organizations.

The consortium now lists about 15 federal agencies as members, each of which pay $300,000 to belong to the organization and to hold voting rights. Ten other agencies have expressed interest in becoming members.

The consortium conducts and promotes research in Web technology, holds seminars and workshops and acts as a clearinghouse for information. For example, it has released a series of guidelines for designing Web pages.

"These are just guidelines; they're not mandatory," said Janet Thot-Thompson, chairwoman of the consortium and a senior computer systems analyst at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "What helps is that someone has a framework that agencies can follow."

Last year the organization held a workshop for federal Webmasters that attracted 1,000 attendees. About 1,500 are expected this year.

At the recent International World Wide Web conference in Paris, the Federal World Wide Web Consortium announced plans to develop relationships with international organizations.

"The Web is inherently a multinational, multisector technology, and we're trying to find out what other sectors are already forming to try and represent themselves," said Larry Brandt, program director for advanced information systems at NSF and a founder of the Federal World Wide Web Consortium. "We tried to get interested government types to say, `We think there may be things we should be talking about.' "

"It's been quite a year. As word is getting out about the consortium, we're growing rapidly," said Thot-Thompson. "I've had an awful lot of sectors besieging me to open it up beyond federal" users.

One of the reasons for its success, said Thot-Thompson, is its loosely organized structure. Although the organization was founded by NSF, she said, "it is not a federal entity. We can move pretty quickly. We don't have the layers" of bureaucracy that federal agencies have.

One of the consortium's main goals is to give members of the IT community a "heads up" on new technology coming into mainstream use, said Carlyn Thompson, who is in charge of research, development and acquisition information support at the Defense Technical Information Center—a member of the consortium.

"We get some good insight into where research and development is going. Knowing what is coming down the pike affects the plans and infrastructure we put in place. It's shaped my long-term planning," Thompson said.

Funds in Exchange for Info

NSF's National Center for Supercomputing Applications receives funds from the consortium to conduct research and, in turn, provides information and training on Web-based technology to the consortium.

"In most cases, the agencies give the money to NSF, and NSF acts as a funnel, directing the money to NCSA," Brandt said.

The organization's technical adviser, Kim Stephenson, said NCSA works to communicate "what's coming, what's new. It gives a peek at the technology" and saves people from having to surf the Web to track trends.

Two years ago the consortium helped fund further development of Mosaic, the original graphical Web browser released by NCSA.

Currently, NCSA is focusing a major part of its Web-developing resources on developing Web-based collaborative technology, such as Habanero [FCW, May 6].

The consortium is helping to fund these efforts as well as provide beta testers for the technology.

For example, the Web consortium's Web site, located at http://skydive.ncsa.uiuc.edu/home.html, features a series of virtual "floors" where members can collaborate on group projects with an NCSA software product called NetWorkplace.

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