New site stages public debate on security

For the National Security Study Group, the Internet provides an opportunity to conduct a truly nationwide study by allowing the public to discuss the topic while the study is being done.

The NSSG (www.nssg.gov) is a federal advisory commission that was authorized under the 1998 Defense Authorization Act in order to put together a study of what "national security" should include in the 21st century. Unlike previous national security studies, the NSSG is looking not only at defense-related issues but also technology, cultural, environmental and economic factors.

Because of this far-reaching view, the commission wanted to create a way for the public to be involved, said Jonathan Nemceff, director of information systems and Webmaster for the NSSG. "From the start, one of the goals was to create a [World Wide] Web site not only to inform the public but also to interact with the public," Nemceff said.

The site has a clean design because Nemceff decided to take a "minimalistic approach," organizing the site into five simple areas. The first four areas provide basic information about the organization and its activities: Who is the NSSG, NSSG Reports, About the NSSG and Event Calendar.

But the most important part of the Web site—and the one that will be growing the most—is the section devoted to public interaction: the Debate Forums. The forums are designed to enable the public to speak directly to the study's researchers and for the researchers to reach out to the public.

The site now features three forums—America's Future Forum, Future Tech Forum and Open Debate Forum—and more will be added to address more specific audiences, Nemceff said.

Visitors can browse through the messages, post a new message or respond to a message. And the messages can be anonymous or include a name of the poster's choosing. In the month since the site went live, there have been more than 547,000 hits on the site and more than 300 postings from people from a mixture of ".com," ".net," ".mil," ".edu" and ".gov" e-mail addresses.

It can be hard to keep people involved in a forum after their initial curiosity has been fulfilled, so the group is considering putting up status reports to show people how their contributions are being used, as well as adding a moderated live chat room. The group also wants to get its senior advisers more directly involved in the forums, Nemceff said.

Each forum has a researcher assigned to it, and they post comments and responses and also forward comments to other researchers and study group members. Even though the site has been up for just more than a month, already many of the postings have brought new ideas and insight to the study, and that is part of the point, Nemceff said.

"The scope of the study is enormous, so wherever you can get new information is helpful," he said.

The site was designed by Nemceff and other group members using NetObjects Inc.'s Fusion for the majority of the site and Lotus Development Corp.'s Domino Release 5 for the forums. It is being maintained internally on a Hewlett-Packard Co. NetServer running Lotus' Domino R5 server software. Because of some peculiarities of the Lotus architecture, which loads each piece of the forums as a separate view, the forums can take a while to load, Nemceff said.

The Defense Department is touting NSSG's Web site and its forums as having opened up a new area for this type of study. "The extensive interactive features of the Web site are unique in that this is the first time that a government-sponsored study has maintained such a direct connection with the American public during its drafting process," according to a recent press release.

More than getting a new perspective on the study's topics, this direct connection will help after the study has ended in 2001. "I think it's really going to help the study and the final reports be accepted by a wider audience," Nemceff said.

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