Spirit of GILS drives DOT search engine

When a government watchdog group singled out the Transportation Department last month for failing to make its information easily available to the public, Crystal Bush, an information technology program analyst, thought her department's efforts were worth a second look.

The report by OMB Watch said DOT was one of two Cabinet-level agencies that had not contributed any information to the Government Information Locator Service, a program mandated by Congress to provide online indexes of federal information to the public. While it is true the department does not offer the type of detailed electronic card catalog envisioned for GILS, Bush said it conforms to the spirit of the program.

Last month, DOT launched a new search page— search.bts.gov— that indexes 123 World Wide Web sites maintained by its agencies. The "DOTbot" is powered by Ultraseek, a Web-based search engine produced by Infoseek.

Bush, who oversees the proj-ect, called the solution "GILS-like," because users can search all DOT Web sites simultaneously, even though it does not use the federal GILS standard for cataloging documents. "You could search and retrieve all our publicly available information, which is what I think GILS is all about," she said.

DOT chose this approach, Bush said, because agencies thought the federal GILS standard had too many requirements, and using a commercially available search engine was more practical. The site lacks an index to information that DOT has not published on the Web— a feature envisioned as part of GILS. "[That] is something we're going to be formulating in the next phase of the project," she said.

As with Internet search tools generally, the more narrowly you focus your DOTbot query, the more likely you are to find information.

If, now that summer is over, you are aggravated again by your daily commute, go to www.dot.gov and input "aggressive drivers," including the quote marks, in the search box on the left side of the page. You also can go directly to the search page, search.bts.gov, which includes a link with clear instructions for writing queries.

DOTbot returned dozens of hits, ranked according to confidence, about what makes aggressive drivers tick, how to identify an aggressive driver and information about programs on highway safety. At the top of the list was a summary of a National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration study, published in April, about driving on the Washington, D.C., Beltway. A press release with the address for the study (www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/research/aggressive/final.rpt.html) was also near the top of the hits list.

However, information on the Northwest Airlines pilots strike will be harder to find. A search on "airline strike" turned up passing references to strikes in pages containing statistics, regulations and speeches.

Clicking on News link on the DOT home page brings up a link to "Tips for Consumers Affected by a Northwest Airlines Strike," an article that did not turn up in subsequent DOTbot searches for the document.

Even a detailed GILS index would not guarantee finding everything the government publishes on any subject, but advocates for that approach argue that it would make it easier to know where to look. Bush agreed that more sophisticated searching options, such as the capability to search specific collections of information, are needed. Crafting such "link locators" also is on her agenda, she said, but DOTbot "is a first step to providing that information."

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