A window to agency knowledge

In what was only a few years back but now seems almost too long ago to remember,

Yahoo revolutionized the Internet by providing rhyme and reason to the reams

of information on the World Wide Web. Now, enterprise information portals

(EIPs) promise to do the same for federal agencies grappling with too much

enterprise data located in too many different data sources.

"EIP is really the killer application for knowledge management," said

Larry Hawes, a senior analyst for the Delphi Group, a consulting firm in

Boston. "It provides a way for people within an organization to find each

other, to find information that they need and to solve real business problems."

Government agencies, chock full of disparate data sources ranging from

mainframes to e-mail systems, are quickly proving to be a perfect fit for

EIPs. Many agencies are getting into the act, including the Navy, the Census

Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service. Building an EIP is usually a tricky

integration job involving many technologies and types of information, but

the benefits in personnel and organizational productivity can be well worth

the effort.

An EIP offers a simple Web-based front end or gateway to internally and

externally located information and online services. EIPs combine several

technologies to cut through "infoglut" and provide employees, partners

and citizens with customized access to the most pertinent and appropriate

enterprise information.

Some of the technologies used include personalization engines, push technology,

search engines, content management, message querying, data warehousing,

Extensible Markup Language and enterprise application integration.

"In the past, when organizations have had several different types of

data sources, users were forced to learn a different tool to access each

one of those different data sources," said Steve Dille, vice president of

marketing for Viador Inc., a San Mateo, Calif.-based developer of enterprise

portals for federal agencies. "The portal integrates all of this information

in one place and gives a consolidated view and search capability across

all those sources."

That's exactly what the Navy is doing with its EIPs. Among the projects

already under way are:

* Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet Knowledge Home Port, a navigational

portal that allows users to access more than 250 databases from one site.

* MarineOnLine, an intranet that is custom-tailored to the unique needs

of Marine Corps families, providing local and top-level military news, notification

of events occurring on and off base, information on family benefits and

services, and the ability to perform administrative processes such as leave

and personnel action requests.

* One Touch Supply, which allows users to access Navy supply and maintenance

systems to identify the location of parts and input requisitions, perform

technical screening and check on requisition status.

One Touch Supply is a far cry from the previous system, in which sailors

had to access up to three computers to access necessary databases that could

locate, requisition and track assets, said Alex Bennet, the Navy's deputy

chief information officer for enterprise integration.

"Sailors often spent several days on the phone to expedite and obtain the

status of critical requisitions prior to deployment," she said.

One Touch, by contrast, provides a seamless and transparent location

and retrieval capability that enables Navy personnel throughout the service

to access a variety of databases using only one password contained in their

public-key infrastructure digital certificate. "Sailors have options for

putting information to work for them, such as telling them to send them

an e-mail at 6:30 every morning showing the status of their requisitions,"

Bennet said.

In general, the types of resources users can access from an EIP usually

depend on their job responsibilities. A high- level employee would have

more secure links and information pushed out on their personal screen than

an administrative assistant or a private citizen, for example. The system

would automatically recognize the user and develop a profile, pulling together

relevant information and making it immediately available upon sign-on.

An EIP can be extremely simple, offering an easy-to-use interface into

one data source, such as a data warehouse, or it can be extremely complex,

cutting across numerous databases, including those located in different

departments or agencies.

The Internal Revenue Service has built an EIP to search several databases

that contain tax returns that need to be analyzed for compliance. The Census

Bureau's American FactFinder will provide users with easy access to any

and all demographic and statistical information held by the government.

"The user no longer needs to worry about whether that information is

held by the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Census Bureau," said Enrique

Gomez, program manager for the Data Analysis and Dissemination System, which

includes the American FactFinder system. "They just go to the site, search

for the information they need, and everything is right there. There's no

major learning curve required or clicking around all over the place."

A number of factors are driving the use of portals, including the increased

ubiquitous nature of the Internet and e-business applications. Another important

factor is the growing — but not always effective — use of intranets within

organizations.

"The intranets were often specialized rather than companywide, which

only created these silos of information that weren't available to other

people in the organization, not unlike what happened when we put PCs on

people's desktops and they kept information locked away on their hard drives,"

Hawes said.

Many agencies are hoping that EIPs become the key to unlock that data.

— Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuart's Draft, Va. She can be reached

at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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