Who’s owner of FirstGov database? Not Uncle Sam
Who’s owner of FirstGov database? Not Uncle Sam
Millionaire philanthropist Eric Brewer owns the FirstGov database of federal Web sites—and in 2003, he’ll take it back.
The Clinton administration agreement with Brewer that brought the award-winning portal online in 90 days’ time has changed meaning under the Bush administration.
“There’s a new sheriff in town, and everything has changed,” said David Binetti, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit FedSearch Foundation, which helped the General Services Administration bring FirstGov to life.
FirstGov now operates under GSA’s auspices, but Brewer, founder of FedSearch and president of Inktomi Corp. of San Francisco, will be first in line to run FirstGov when his so-called gift reverts to his company in two years’ time.
At the time Brewer offered to build the search engine, he promised to turn it over to the government in 2003. The search technology, however, produces a database in Inktomi’s proprietary format.
FedSearch is a tax-sheltered charity, a status it achieved after revving up the FirstGov search engine in October.
“We said anybody who does it for free is welcome to do it for free,” said William Piatt, former GSA chief information officer during the Clinton administration. “Nobody else came forward.”
Clinton’s December 1999 directive on electronic government challenged agencies to develop some sort of Web portal for public information within 90 days. Brewer said he could do the job fast and as a gift to the nation.
“I was a bit of a nervous Nellie” about the offer, said Sally Katzen, former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. “We had the OMB lawyers look at the agreement to make sure we were retaining the rights that we should have. We were told it was clean.”Agreement struck
Contractors estimated such a project would cost GSA $7.5 million, which it didn’t have. So the government accepted Brewer’s offer.
“Given our extremely accelerated launch schedule, I knew that investigating the full extent of options available to us would make it impossible to actually meet the schedule,” Brewer told the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology in October.
Behind closed doors, Katzen said, she expressed concern to David J. Barram, then GSA administrator, about the gift from Brewer’s custom-created foundation. “I was dubious bordering on skeptical. What’s in it for them?” said Katzen.
Barram now serves in an unpaid position on the board of FedSearch.
In the fall, Brewer promised to dissolve the foundation in 2003 and turn over everything to the government except the database, which holds the repository of agency uniform resource locators.Start from scratch
After FedSearch shuts down, the database becomes Inktomi’s property. A new search engine vendor would have to start from scratch.
“There wasn’t supposed to be anything proprietary,” Katzen said.
The Sept. 1, 2000, memorandum of understanding signed by Brewer and Barram, however, specifically noted that FedSearch intended to use proprietary Inktomi software for the search engine.
It also stated that if a successor vendor chooses to use a “different technology for the search engine, the connections to Inktomi will be disconnected and the [FirstGov] servers will be purged of software and data prior to donation to GSA.”
Inktomi is not FedSearch, Binetti said, but rather “Inktomi works for FedSearch.” When there is no more FedSearch, Inktomi will have the database.
Binetti, however, said it doesn’t matter who gets the database in 2003 nor what format it is in, because the information will be obsolete. He also disagreed that the database is the most important component of FirstGov.
Likening the use of the database to selling old newspapers, he said any vendor could build a new database and take over the show.
Katzen disagreed, saying the database is important even if the information becomes as stale as Binetti claims.
“You can send out a spider to get the new stuff, and the agencies are trained to send it in,” Katzen said. “Then the database will be refreshed.”
Katzen said her understanding was that the government would at least get the infrastructure back, including the database.
She said that she initially worried about giving too much power to the FirstGov development team, creating problems when the gift expired, but that Barram assured her GSA couldn’t come up with $7.5 million in time, making an alternative approach impossible.
Accepting the gift was the best option, said Piatt, who now oversees electronic-government initiatives for Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va.
“It made the entire activity much cheaper because we were no longer having to spend money on the search engine,” he said. “It was faster, cheaper and lower risk.”
Piatt said he had asked OMB for $7.5 million in May 2000, based on unnamed vendors’ estimates.
OMB “cut it to $4.5 million, and I said, ‘I can’t do it, I just can’t do it,’ ” he said. “This was all before Eric Brewer entered the scene.”
Despite the gift from Brewer and free servers from Sun Microsystems Inc., Katzen said Deborah Diaz, GSA deputy associate administrator for FirstGov, requested and received $4.5 million to cover other costs.
“I said, ‘I thought it was for free,’ ” Katzen said. “We went round and round for that one, and they said they still had some costs.” The costs included Diaz’s staff, overhead, hosting and development expenses, Katzen said.
Piatt said the $4.5 million from OMB went to GRC International Inc., an AT&T Corp. unit that hosts FirstGov and developed the front end.
“People had put a lot of things online in 1993, ’94, ’95,” Katzen said. “I said, ‘Your stuff is now going to be seen by somebody. You better make sure it’s respectable.’ ”
That cost the agencies money, she said.
Katzen said GSA was put in charge of FirstGov at the end of 1999 because the agency had expertise at directing governmentwide initiatives.
Policy was not set by FedSearch, she said, but by the FirstGov board, which Katzen chaired initially.
If the government had not accepted the gift, there probably wouldn’t be a FirstGov portal now, Piatt said.
“We were interested in accepting the gift because we were having a hard time finding a workable technical solution,” he said.
Piatt also said rebuilding the database isn’t as costly as “the hardware and software and the hosting.” Those components, he said, the government should get back in 2003.
GSA spokeswoman Eleni Martin, speaking on behalf of Diaz, said FedSearch, not Inktomi, owns the database and that a distinction should be made between Brewer the philanthropist and Brewer the millionaire president of Inktomi.
FedSearch’s Binetti acknowledged that making the gift to the government left little room for competition in building FirstGov.
“Things didn’t go through a standard process,” Binetti said. “Requests for information, requests for proposals—all of those things didn’t happen the first time.”What’s the drill?
The unorthodox process has left one potential competitor, Autonomy Inc. of San Francisco, unclear as to how to proceed in response to a request for information that GSA issued in June for another search engine. Company officials said they are wary because they believe GSA is comfortable with Inktomi and won’t give competitors a chance.
Rita Joseph, Autonomy’s public-sector vice president, said the company was a subcontractor to AT&T to provide relevancy technology for the FirstGov search engine. Relevancy applications help ensure that a site search returns only the information that a requester wants.
GSA paid AT&T’s government markets group $700,000 to install Autonomy’s advanced search application last May, prior to the acceptance of Brewer’s gift.
Then FedSearch stepped in and, despite GSA’s payment for the Autonomy software, used Inktomi subsidiary Ultraseek Corp.’s relevancy software.
Autonomy had the winning bid, Piatt said, but the company’s software proved incompatible with Inktomi’s database. In the end, the government spent the $700,000 for software it didn’t use.
According to Piatt, now that the FirstGov information is on the Web, any search engine provider could become a competitor. Whereas engines such as AltaVista or Google had limited access to government information before, any engine can now spider federal sites collected in the FirstGov repository.
But, GSA’s Martin said, “The 2002 funds do not include a request for a new search engine. It’s premature to talk about the rest of the funding.”
Congress has earmarked $3 million for FirstGov in fiscal 2002. Piatt said some alternative means of funding the portal must be found. “Whatever it’s going to cost, it’s going to be more than $3 million,” he said.