DOT cuts paperwork; allows grant applicants to use Web

State and local governments universities and others who apply for federal grants could soon use a common electronic method to apply for money under a proposed system that the Transportation Department began testing this month.

The Electronic Grants Pilot Project would let grant applicants use the World Wide Web to file standard forms requesting aid from a variety of federal government programs. Although applicants would still have to provide information specific to each grant program a federal database would store data common to all their requests and let them update their files as needed.

The project an outgrowth of the National Performance Review aims to tame the paperwork that federal agencies demand from the public. "We want help to rationalize conflicting forms and systems" by making it easier to prepare and submit the dozens of documents that make up each grant proposal said Brad Smith the project manager.

The concept is not a new one. The National Science Foundation uses the Web to manage grants applications from hundreds of users. Since 1994 the Energy Department has funded a consortium of federal agencies universities and a vendor to test an electronic-mail-based method for filing grant proposals using Electronic Data Interchange.

Setting a PrecedentBut the DOT application would be the first to create an interface that could be used for any federal grant program. The electronic grants project would deliver the common grant request form to applicants' desktops using a Java applet available to anyone with a Web browser. After applicants fill out and submit their forms the information would be routed to appropriate federal agencies.

At the heart of the DOT system is "information broker" software provided by Active Software Santa Clara Calif. Called ActiveWeb the software allows agencies to download data off the Web and translate it into whatever format they use in their internal systems. Any federal agency that participates in the system would have to purchase translator or "adapter " software from Active to accept data although they would not have to buy the entire ActiveWeb package.

Michael Humphrey business director for telecommunications and information with Public Technologies Inc. an association of technology-savvy local governments said only a handful of cities and counties are actively exploring how to use the Internet but more will probably become familiar with it as they use federal projects similar to this.

Getting EquippedSo far however potential users including some state governments local agencies and universities may not be equipped to use the application which requires a computer with 32M of RAM to run the Java applet. "It's going to take a few years to catch on " Smith said.

In the meantime he said users might be able to use new Java operating system software to turn their slower computers into Web-enabled "Net PCs." Sun Microsystems Inc. announced this month JavaPC software that provides such capability for less than $100 per desktop. But this technology has not yet been widely adopted.

Rob Unger project director with RAMS-FIE the Gaithersburg Md. firm that is coordinating the EDI research for Energy said his company's EDI approach which it demonstrated for the first time last month would not require anything more than an e-mail address to connect with federal agencies. "One of the major considerations we're trying to address in demonstration is the uneven playing field " he said.

Smith said the electronic grants proj-ect will incorporate EDI standards in a later phase so grant applicants will have "a choice of technology." But systems developers have to solve a more urgent problem - securing transmissions over the Web - before the pilot can be expanded.

Officials are waiting for Active Software to provide an upgrade to its software that will allow it to communicate through agency firewalls.

Meanwhile Smith said DOT has received funding from the Emergency Access Demonstration Project which is testing the feasibility of a public-key infrastructure to incorporate digital signature technology into the program. He said he hopes to have security for the pilot in place by September.

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