Potential Research Topical Areas and Technologies

NSF Project Aims To Narrow Cultural Divide

By John Makulowich
Senior Writer

Bridging the gap between academic researchers and federal information technology managers has never been easy, but a new program is trying to fix this awkward state of affairs by soliciting proposals that require the two work together on common problems.

The National Science Foundation issued an announcement June 1 for its Digital Government program, which will fund study "at the intersection of the computer and information sciences research communities and the mid- to long-term research, development and experimental deployment needs of the Federal information service communities."

Larry Brandt, program manager for the NSF project, said that the focus will be on supporting projects that innovatively, effectively and broadly address potential improvement of agency, interagency and intergovernmental operations and government-citizen interaction.

The deadline for submissions for the project is Sept. 1; in subsequent years it will be March 1. The Digital Government program is funded for $1 million this fiscal year, and the administration's budget plan requested $2.5 million in fiscal 1999.

"The idea for this project really goes all the way back to 1993 and the development of Mosaic, the first graphical cross-platform Web browser," said Brandt. "We came up with the idea of a consortium to fund Web development. It proved to us that we could think about connecting research agencies and their issues with academic research communities."

Seeking a formal approach to connecting the communities, NSF funded a workshop suggested by Herbert Schorr, executive director of the Information Sciences Institute, Marina del Rey, Calif., and Salvatore Stolfo, a professor in the department of computer science at Columbia University in New York. It convened in 1996 and drew 80 participants.

A final report on that workshop was issued in May 1997 (www.isi.edu/nsf/final.html). The purpose of the workshop was to generate interest among academic researchers in problems unique to the government arena.

"One of the reasons the two communities - that is aca-demic researchers and federal information service providers - have not gotten together much in the past can be traced to cultural, social and political issues," said Brandt.

"Deep down, research means different things to the two groups. On the academic side, it means basic research. On the federal side, it means systems integration as well as basic research. It's even created a gap between research and nonresearch agencies," he said.

NSF's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Division of Experimental and Integrative Activities, is requiring proposals address areas that are primarily governmental, or where federal government requirements are unique and integrate domain experts, for example, users and customers, during the life of the project.

For cross-agency pilot projects or testbed proposals, one of the more important requirements is that there is, "upon project completion, plans to ensure capture of research results; e.g. involvement of potential commercial partners (systems integrators, software vendors), commitments by other organizations for continued funding, etc."

The proposal categories include standard NSF research projects, domain-specific cross-agency pilot projects, planning grants (up to $50,000 for one year), human development activities, such as sabbaticals for faculty at federal agencies or assignments of federal employees at universities.

Among the potential research areas cited in the program announcement were intelligent information integration, very large-scale data and information acquisition and management for geospatial and multidimensional data, advanced analytics for large datasets/information collections, electronic transaction and electronic commerce technologies, research in the application of information technology to federal law and regulation and information services for citizen customers.

Brandt said the federal government does not handle cross-agency issues well, a fact that stems from the way Congress authorizes federal programs and the way funds are appropriated.

Given that, his wish list includes a strong show of submissions for planning grants and workshop proposals and support to fund one major center at the level of $1 million.

Among the federal cross-agency domain contacts listed in the Digital Government announcement were: Cathryn Dippo, associate commissioner for survey methods research at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is part of the Labor Department; and Keith Thurston, assistant to the deputy associate administrator for the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration.

Dippo, a mathematical statistician, said that one of the goals of the program is to promote research and development that would improve the electronic dissemination of the bureau's statistical data.

"We are recruiting people in academia to get them interested in our problems, in developing proposals to submit," Dippo said. "Those of us in mission agencies are focused on putting out statistics each month. It's important that we put our problems in the real world on the table and let the academic community know what our needs are.

"NSF is performing a valuable service by fostering and promoting interaction between people interested in basic science. The requirement that proposers have two or more federal agencies as partners is significant," she said.

Thurston believes Digital Government will be an ongoing program attracting federal agencies with issue areas that cross. He reinforced Brandt's views about why the two communities have failed to connect more strongly in the past.

"You're dealing with two different cultures, a federal IT side used to [a request for proposal] environment and academic basic research," Thurston said.

Take the issue of legacy in a paper-based world, where agencies like the Office of Personnel Management and Veterans Affairs have the need to maintain large paper archives. Past attempts to electronically port that data either by optical character recognition or by imaging have not been completely successful. Academic research efforts could help solve this problem, as well as yield commercial, off-the-shelf products.

From the academic side, Columbia's Stolfo amplified the comments of his federal counterparts.

He explained that the research community is substantially supported by agencies like the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health, whose driving mission of health and security depend on innovation and basic science.

"Today, many agencies have lost touch with basic research for cultural, economic and political reasons," Stolfo said. "Our workshop was an approach to bridge the culture gap. In the past few years, the Internet and the Web have increased expectations about conducting commerce and about the government being as accessible to the public as their bank."

He added that academic researchers also need to keep in touch with the real world when dealing with such issues as computational problems and algorithms. Ignoring the practical impact of their research could lead them to attack a problem faced by only 1 percent of the affected population.

"The impact to the country and the citizens is enormous. In the academic community, the rule of publish or perish still holds. And applied work is often questioned, that is, what does this have to do with research? Those are cultural issues," Stolfo said.

"What we hope to see is basic research done in the context of an application."

Stolfo predicts that research communities will eventually look toward NSF with the same respect they now have for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And he believes the Digital Government initiative will get the same level of funding. He also dreams of high-impact programs that will have an effect on agencies as DARPA serves defense agencies.

Potential Research Topical Areas and Technologies

These examples of project areas suggest the types of activities envisioned for the Digital Government program. These are illustrative and do not imply any priority.

Acquisition, management for Geospatial and multidimensional data
Technologies to cost-effectively acquire, integrate and view geographic, biological, environmental, social and economic data and meta-data of all types. Examples are:

  • "Uniform" access to linked statistical data sources in 70 agencies that gather and disseminate information across multiple sectors;

  • A master U.S. data source index for rapid culling together of data for emergency managers dealing with crises in the field.

Electronic transaction and electronic commerce technologies
Common transaction media between government and the citizenry; successful migration strategies from batch-oriented transactions to scalable and efficient online systems; security and authentication mechanisms to maintain the highest levels of privacy. An example is:

Electronic Service Delivery via WWW and distributed kiosks at public sites, anytime processing allowing citizens to process benefits inquiries and requests electronically.

Advanced analytics for large datasets/information collections
Infrastructure to allow the broadest range of analysis techniques to be applied to user-selected views and visualization of very large data and information sources. Examples are:

  • Data mining facilities and computing utility services for citizens to compute models of online statistical data sources;

  • Information-on-demand services for emergency management, which present only the information needed to avoid overload.

Intelligent information integration
Includes techniques to define, design and maintain shared ontologies, or the means of mediating queries among multiple data and information sources, which may contain heterogeneous or incongruent data. Examples are:

  • Automated "content" searching to generate indices, with formal ontologies of available data;

  • Automated formal processes assisting and guiding emergency managers to locate, access and effectively use available data.

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