FedStats experimenting with P2P

Attention paid to a work in progress often can lead to more questions than answers, and that appears to be what happened with the FedStats Interagency Task Force's work with peer-to-peer technology.

Valerie Gregg, program manager for the Digital Government Consortium at the National Science Foundation and co-chairwoman of the task force, disputed a Federal Computer Week report that calls into question a happy ending for FedStats.net because the site was taken offline on April 20 ["All in a day's work," Federal Computer Week, May 14, 2001].

Fourteen principal agencies are involved in FedStats.net, which uses Extensible Markup Language and P2P technology, and the task force is a partner in nine grants from the NSF's Digital Government program (www.diggov.org).

"It was always a proof-of-concept prototype," Gregg said of FedStats.net. "It's helping define a research agenda for agencies that have data sitting behind firewalls."

But when such research and development activities are funded with public dollars, public scrutiny is sure to follow.

The FedStats.net P2P project began receiving increased media and government attention on April 16, when one of the companies involved in the program, NextPage Inc., issued a press release stating that the site "delivers a single point of integrated access to statistical data from 70 federal agencies."

That release led to some misinterpretations, with people assuming that more than 70 agencies had signed on to use this system. In reality, data from 70 agencies was involved, but the agencies themselves were not paying for the technology or in any way endorsing it.

Marshall DeBerry, FedStats' other co-chairman and a survey statistician for the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Justice Department, said the P2P project was always prototypical. He said the task force was "already planning on spinning it down, but the release of the press release accelerated that."

"We were surprised, as others were, when the site was shut down," said Bruce Law, vice president of corporate marketing at NextPage. "It had been successful for the six months since it went live in November, and we still believe that other government agencies can take advantage of the technology."

Law said that despite the shutdown, NextPage would definitely work with the FedStats task force in the future and is looking forward to the day when the site is live again.

Gregg and DeBerry said the P2P work has paid dividends. It spawned a new project in examining how agencies that use firewalls can conduct "technology transfers," and it provided a real-world example showing what is needed to balance collaboration and security among statistical agencies.

"There's a fine line when you balance the need of security vs. the need for a collaboration," DeBerry said. "As agencies move to a more information-intensive environment, the need to collaborate grows, but the key is balancing the two."

P2P's future with FedStats.net is unclear, but "FedStats.net is not going to go away.... It will have a role and be back online sometime this summer," Gregg said, adding that it will be among many topics discussed at next week's Digital Government Workshop in Redondo Beach, Calif.

DeBerry said that dating back to the first census-takers, the government's statistical community has had to confront issues before they get out to the general public — ranging from security and privacy concerns to ensuring data quality and disseminating information in a timely manner. "This is a continuation of that tradition," he said. "We need to make the information as useful as possible to our audience — the public."

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