NSF's Digital initiative to solve cross-agency IT problems

The National Science Foundation has launched an initiative to improve government services by bringing together federal agencies that share common problems with academic and industry researchers.

Dubbed the Digital Government Initiative, the effort so far has identified a number of "affinity groups"— which are clusters of agencies that share common information systems needs— that could combine common information, making it easier for the public to access that data.

The public wants "to look at government horizontally rather than vertically," said Keith Thurston, an assistant to the deputy associate administrator of the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy, who is helping to pull together various civilian agencies. For example, if someone wants travel information, he should not have to go separately to the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department. "The value of data when databases and resources are stovepiped is much less than the value of data [available in] a common database or linked in a useful way," Thurston said. If solutions are developed collaboratively, you "get a common solution with automatic interoperability and better service to the citizen."

The initiative is modeled after the Federal World Wide Web Consortium, which also brought agencies and the research community together, said Larry Brandt, program manager for digital government at NSF. Various issue groups are designing project proposals in anticipation of the program announcement.

Areas of interest among the affinity groups identified so far are federal statistics, crisis management, geographic information systems, transportation, public health and electronic grants. For example, more than 70 agencies and parts of agencies are involved in gathering statistics. Information services agencies have issues with collecting data in the field, visualizing it and mining it.

The Office of Management and Budget has asked the Chief Information Officers Council for support. A memo from Ed DeSeve, OMB's acting deputy director for management, to the council describes the program as "a collaborative national effort to spur long-term innovation in federal information systems and services." NSF also is working with the Government Information Technology Services Board.

A program announcement to the grants community is expected in March. NSF has committed $1 million a year in seed funding for the projected three-year effort but expects agencies to share the cost because the initiative could end up costing $15 million to $20 million a year, Brandt said.

The effort is unique in trying to break down the barriers between the academic research community and the federal IS agencies. Usually technology is "just becoming interesting to the federal side when the university side is throwing it away," Brandt said. But NSF is "asking for real, explicit partnerships" between the two sides "to address cross-agency problems."

Much of the effort will be related to the Internet, although others will be considered. Participants also hope for state and local government participation.

The Federal Statistics Working Group, under the Applications Council of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), is identifying potential pilots, said FSWG chairwoman, Cathryn Dippo, an associate commissioner with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Our goal is to go beyond simple finding tools" to better search mechanisms, display technology and statistical literacy tools, along with increased interoperability.

Several cross-agency, Web-related pilots have been identified by the statistics group, including the display of tabular information, the graphical presentation of data with interactive graphing and a flexible interface to summary data files as well as filtering tools.

Similarly, about 27 agencies involved in distributing grants could benefit from a common electronic approach, Thurston said. Other opportunities for collaborative research are in storing and archiving information— especially networked, multimedia information— and the subsequent finding, accessing and interpreting of the data, according to a Digital Government Initiative workshop report produced last year.

A parallel Crisis Management Working Group under the NSTC is planning a workshop in April to help identify cross-agency needs, said Anngienetta Johnson, the group's chairwoman and director of enterprise management at NASA in Washington, D.C. Crisis management could benefit from automation in finding, acquiring, integrating, summarizing and visualizing information to manage a crisis, a 1997 workshop report noted.

Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va. She can be reached at cadams@nmaa.org.

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