A wealth of data, but dubious currency

FirstGov seems ideal for someone like Gary Gershowitz.

Gershowitz, a writer and researcher in the office of communications at the Florida Department of Children and Families, often finds himself scouring the World Wide Web for information to help the state develop social services programs.

Last fall, for example, the office put together a campaign to alert residents about a new law that allows parents to "abandon" unwanted babies without being charged with a crime. The law stipulates that babies up to three days old can be left at Safe Baby Stations at designated hospitals and fire stations. Gershowitz used the Internet to find raw data on abandoned babies and to look at similar programs in other states.

Gershowitz, who also has worked as writer and researcher at the Interior Department and in the first Bush administration, used to spend 80 or 90 percent of his workdays in libraries scanning books and microfiche. The Internet, in particular the Yahoo search engine, has reduced his research time to about 20 percent.

FirstGov seemed like it could make the job even easier by making it possible to search multiple government Web sites at once, he said. Gershowitz only questions whether the search results are sufficiently relevant.

Gershowitz agreed to try out FirstGov at Federal Computer Week's request. He was interested in learning more about the value of homeopathic herbs, which might be recommended to people outside a medical setting. A search of federal Web sites using the terms "herbs" and "health" turned up more than a thousand "relevant results," according to FirstGov.

In fact, it was a mixed bag. The fifth item in the list of returns, a Food and Drug Administration guide to dietary supplements, looked promising, but was dated 1994, which pretty much disqualified it as far as Gershowitz was concerned.

A more general report, "Fraudulent Health Claims: Don't Be Fooled," by the Federal Trade Commission, did not provide the kind of information he was looking for, but "this could be something that has an overview I could read," he said. "That's something that could be beneficial to me."

The FTC report was dated 1999, which, unfortunately, was relatively up-to-date in the first batch of returns. "Anything that is more than three years old, no matter what Web site I get it from, is probably of no use," he said.

The problem is not unique to FirstGov, of course. A similar search on Yahoo, using the government category, also pulled up outdated material. "I would like to see a search engine that allows you to put in the year, so you are not pulling up stuff that is five or 10 years old," Gershowitz said.

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