’s party project

17 organizations bring a little something to search engine project

How do you get 17 organizations to collaborate on a single search engine? Run the project like a potluck party, according to Eleanor Frierson.

Frierson, co-chair of the Alliance and deputy director of the Agriculture Department’s National Agricultural Library, said at a potluck party everyone brings something to contribute, and all the offerings are organized into a single presentation.

The development of worked much the same way, said Frierson, who chairs the alliance with Tom Lahr, the Geological Survey’s chief of information management.

The Web site is being held up as a model of interagency collaboration. Introduced in December 2002, it lets users search across scientific databases of 17 governmental organizations and 12 agencies.

The key to making it work was getting each agency involved to provide data, Frierson said. Rather than centralize the operation of the site within a small group, duties would be divvied out to each participant.

“There isn’t an 800-pound gorilla,” Frierson said. Each participant “brings together the information resources [it has], arranges them as a service and puts them out for people to use.”
The idea for the search engine sprang from two workshops held in 2000 and 2001 by a special interest group called CENDI, which formerly stood for Commerce, Energy, NASA, Defense Information Managers Group. The first workshop, chaired by Alvin Trivelpiece, the former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was an attempt to map the future of scientific communications.

“We asked them to lay out a high-level vision for how the Internet could be used to disseminate scientific information better than before,” said Walter Warnick, director of CENDI as well as head of the Energy Department’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information.

The federal government funds more than $100 billion in scientific research and development each year.

Although each agency made the results of its research available on the Web in one form or another, Web surfers interested in government research in one particular field, such as food safety, would have to jump from one agency’s site to the next, gathering data.

“Before, we had isolated islands of research and development findings. What did was bring all these islands together,” Warnick said. “It is not a replacement for each of these databases, but it can get you to them.”

The workshops’ participants concluded that agencies could coordinate their efforts to make one central gateway that would group research by topic, rather than by which agency produced the data.

To that end, conference members started the Alliance and procured two grants of about $90,000 each to build the portal.

One grant came from the Office of Management and Budget, the other from Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information. To serve visitors, Frierson said, the site would need a simple interface.

All the complexity of merging multiple databases from various agencies would have to be kept hidden from view. Behind the scenes, however, each organization had to prepare its own data so that it could be accessed through the search engine, as well as keep its own databases up to date.

Agencies that want to participate pay an annual fee, which fluctuates from year to year. This year’s fee runs about $7,000, although it’s waived for organizations that are part of CENDI.

CENDI’s fees also fluctuate, but this year the cost for joining is around $18,500.

For Tom Lahr, an Alliance co-chair and deputy chief of the Geological Survey’s biological informatics office, the program serves as a model of how multiple agencies can work together to support a common cause, in this case, getting out the word about their research.

“It shows the value of a group effort based on cooperation and trust,” he said. “There was no one agency that was most important.”

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