NSF funds innovative IT research

The Digital Government program, a relatively new and innovative arm of the National Science Foundation, has awarded about $7 million in grants for 16 research projects designed to improve government services using cutting-edge information technology.

The proposals range from an application that lets users see fluctuations occur in gasoline-related data collected by the Energy Department to a project that helps make IT hardware and software accessible to people with physical disabilities.

The grants, the first slate of awards by the Digital Government program, "represent a great deal of potential information technology innovation for the missions of the participating agencies," said Lawrence Brandt, the Digital Government program director.

"At the same time, these projects have passed the National Science Foundation's rigorous merit review process for quality of research. This combination is what's exciting and unique about the Digital Government program and these awards," Brandt said.

One of the largest awards—about $1.3 million—went to a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit agency that plans to train a corps of government managers to use IT to improve government services. The nonpartisan Center for Excellence in Government also will use that pool of grant money to help the Digital Government program organize conferences and seminars and to develop a World Wide Web site centered on federal IT.

The Center for Excellence in Government hopes that 20 to 30 government managers will be enrolled in the Digital Government Fellows Program by fall of 2000, said Anthony Shelborne, the organization's chief financial officer.

The managers will participate in day-long training seminars about once a month for 12 months, and they will make regular visits to other federal, state and local government offices that are using IT in innovative ways.

The program, Shelborne said, parallels the center's existing Excellence in Government Fellows program, which puts select government managers through a yearlong management boot camp. The new program, Shelborne said, will address management issues, but the emphasis "will be more the use of information technology and using technology to improve government performance; to use technology as a management tool, not just using technology for its own sake."

The Digital Government program, which was started last year, is charged with nurturing fruitful intersections between IT research and government agencies. Among other things, the program offers grants to researchers interested in tackling IT problems that affect individual government agencies as well as the government at large.

In this first batch of awards, the research projects are sprinkled throughout government.The National Institute of Statistical Science, Research Triangle Park, N.C., will use a $1.26 million grant to work with several federal statistical agencies to make their data more accessible to government researchers and analysts.

Much valuable government statistical data, according to the grant, is rendered less potent than it could be because of the government's need to keep information confidential. The proposal would study ways to help the government sharpen its statistical data while not jeopardizing the confidentiality of people or parties comprising the data.

In another proposal, for about $1.63 million, researchers from the University of Southern California will create a system that will support real-time viewing and manipulation of the Energy Department's gasoline-related database.

The program also awarded several small incubator grants, including a $40,000 award to Rand Corp. to help the Environmental Protection Agency develop ways to enable more electronic interaction between the agency and citizens and companies that must deal with the agency. Another $40,000 grant, to Ohio State University researchers, will support a workshop and other activities to give the government access to more information for use in managing coastal regions.

The grants are focused heavily on the statistical and geographic information sciences, with a particular emphasis on data integration, Brandt said.

"We hope that as the Y2K problem fades, it will be recognized by the CIO community as only one of a number of similar problems, all arising from a need for a better strategic view of the future regarding information technologies," Brandt said. "I don't accept that government agencies always have to be three to five years behind the cutting edge, especially not with information technology, which is unique in having such potential for reinventing and streamlining government missions."

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