Search tech finds government info best, survey says

The government should buy search technologies to provide public access to government information online, rather than invest in metadata tagging, according to the majority of organizations that responded to a government-sponsored survey.

Last September, the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget issued a request for information, asking whether search technology is powerful enough to replace government standards for information management. Responses were due in October 2005.

More than 56 percent of respondents said yes.

GSA’s written analysis, posted last month, states that the percentage means respondents “overwhelmingly supported the hypothesis” that search engine technology is expedient for sharing government information. Forty-seven government, industry and academic organizations replied out of the 129 that GSA contacted.

Other options included explicitly cataloguing information and using the Global Information Locator Service (GILS) standard.

GILS responds to searches that reference information by title, subject, author, date and location. National Institute of Standards and Technology officials recently proposed withdrawing GILS as a mandatory federal standard because modern search technology has eclipsed it, they said. Also, GSA officials decided not to require GILS compliance when they awarded a contract to revamp FirstGov's search engine.

GSA’s summary report states, “In light of the recent controversy over the pending withdrawal of the GILS as a Federal Information Processing Standard, a significant finding of this study was the lack of support (and, indeed, demand) for the ISO 23950 search interoperability standard, on which the GILS standard is based.

Those who supported some kind of advanced preparation of material said such procedures should not require human interaction, other than installing automated tools for metadata tagging.

The bulk of the 47 survey participants were from industry. Only three government agencies – the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Energy Department – and two educational institutions provided feedback.

Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI), which hosts interagency metasearch tool Science.gov, was an ardent backer of search as the most cost-effective solution.

“Search technology has progressed far enough so that manual categorization and metadata tagging of textural documents is no longer necessary, and any perceived gain in accessibility does not justify the cost of categorization,” OSTI’s response states.

However, NARA, advocated a metadata-based approach in some situations.

“For either information or records to be trustworthy, they must have additional information either embedded within the content itself or information associated with the content that can provide some degree of assurance of authenticity, reliability and integrity, now and in the future; NARA believes this can be accomplished via the incorporation of records management metadata. This is the only way that government can be reasonably certain that it is providing itself and others with authoritative information,” NARA’s response states.

Likewise, many respondents, including search vendors, said the government would require some human intervention to catalog structured databases. In addition, multimedia collections, including sound and video, need significant manual organization.

GSA officials described such exceptions as “a continuum where as complexity and formality increases, so too does the business case [ROI] for advance preparation.”

The survey’s contributors included Adobe, Boeing, Google, LexisNexis and Microsoft. Stanford University and the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute offered academic perspectives.

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