GSA, OMB seek input on info sharing

The RFI could lead to procurements aimed at improving how people locate, retrieve and share government information.

The federal government is taking a heady look at one of the biggest problems of our time: information sharing.

A recent request for information issued jointly by the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget asks whether search technology is powerful enough to replace government standards for information management.

“Does current search technology perform to a sufficiently high level to make an added investment in metadata tagging unnecessary in terms of cost and benefit?” the Sept. 15 RFI asks. Responses are due Oct. 21.

The notice will likely lead to and shape procurements in the next decade, according to supplementary information on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site.

Suggested approaches must meet the wide-reaching aim of identifying the most cost-effective means to search for, locate, retrieve and share information. The notice details seven scenarios to provide context for responses.

For example, the federal government is looking for information on how to help a physician dig through multiple databases and Web sites to find treatments for an unexplained illness exhibited by a defense contractor. The doctor may not know all the agencies that provide information on unexplained or service-related illnesses, and may not know related research avenues. The physician would also need a way to search nongovernmental sources. Some of the information might not be easily accessible through traditional Internet search engines.

In addition to tackling information sharing, the suggested approach must meet the problem of information access.

“The physician will want to ensure that his citations will still be attainable at some arbitrary point in the future," the notice states.

The RFI appears at the same time that popular commercial search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s MSN Search are about to replace a 10-year-old government search standard intended as an electronic card catalog of public government information.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology wants to withdraw the Global Information Locator Service (GILS), which it considers an obsolete search standard. A July 15 Federal Register notice states that recalling the standard, also known as International Organization for Standardization 23950, seems justified because most agencies now use commercial search tools to help people locate government information.

Accordingly, the RFI seeks approaches that could avoid the use of standards.

“Please describe the interoperability standards implemented/supported by your approach in the following areas,” the notice states. “Alternatively, you may also explain why you believe the following are not necessary or cost effective.”

Some government computer programmers say they are impressed by the foresight of GSA and OMB, in issuing the notice.

Tamas Doszkocs, a computer scientist at the National Library of Medicine, has been working on metasearch and clustering engine ToxSeek for almost a decade.

“This is a very good way of taking a look at an extremely complex array of problems and solutions and trying to elicit feedback from major contractors who would be able to address this whole complex issue,” he said today. “It indicates a keen awareness of the complexity of the problems.”

Doszkocs said only piecemeal solutions currently exist in industry and government.

“There is nobody that could address and provide solutions to all of the concerns and problem sets,” he said. “But there are certainly companies that have formidable technologies that could team up.”

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