Feds Kick Off Global Information Effort

By John Makulowich

Contributing Writer

The National Science Foundation is spearheading an international project to feed a wealth of government information via Usenet newsgroups, offering millions the opportunity to follow and comment on all levels of government activity.

In principle, small businesses, households and organizations such as schools that may lack high-end computers and high-speed connections can now use fairly simple systems to access a wide array of federal agency information thanks to the GovNews project.

Using the new Usenet hierarchy called gov, NSF has already sent out more than 200 newsgroups for propagation over the Internet to major networks like PSINet, UUNet and InternetMCI, as well as to commercial online services such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy.

Individuals with access to the World Wide Web can get the newsgroups at http://www.govnews.org. Those who have yet to get the gov newsgroups through their Internet service providers can use Deja News <http://www.dejanews.com/> to see examples of posts. Type the characters "gov.*" in the Deja News Quick Search form.

These newsgroups will feed information from the Federal Register, which carries all final and proposed rules drafted by U.S. government agencies; the Commerce Business Daily, which includes solicitations for all procurements by U.S. agencies over $25,000 and notifications of contracts awarded; and the Congressional Record, a daily digest of the proceedings of Congress. It is published daily when either or both the House of Representatives and the Senate are in session.

Also available will be general notices related to doing business with the U.S. government, reports from General Accounting Office investigations on U.S. government activities or policy and GAO publications. Carrying names like gov.topic.admin.finance.procurement, gov.us.fed.doc.cbd.solicitations,gov.us.topic.gov-jobs.offered.technical and gov.us.topic.grants.research, the newsgroups will also carry court opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court and from U.S. District Appellate Courts, U.S. Department of Agriculture economic reports, announcements of job opportunities with the U.S. government and Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Preston Rich, executive director of NSF's Finance-Net and leader of the International GovNews Project, says the project evolved from a collaborative effort between international public and private sector volunteers, led by Rich, seeking to make government more open and accessible.

The effort, which has been under way for more than two years, lays the groundwork for the cost-effective electronic distribution and discussion of public government information, Rich says. He admits that volunteer participation by government agencies and staff is crucial to what is now considered a pilot project.

Alongside the more efficient distribution of government data, says Rich, GovNews opens new opportunities for public participation and discussion of government news. It also is as a venue for citizen feedback to government administrators, playing the role of a virtual town meeting.

At this stage, Rich says, the project's success or failure depends on participation. "We certainly need government support, for example, by administrators encouraging their agencies to distribute information through newsgroups. Without that support, the project could atrophy," says Rich.

The first set of more than 200 newsgroups was released by NSF in early March. They are now making their way throughout the Internet. The NSF's FinanceNet Network hubs and distributes the 200-plus government newsgroups. Sponsorship of the project is by the U.S. Chief Financial Officers Council, an organization of the CFOs and deputy CFOs of the largest federal agencies, senior officials of the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of the Treasury, who work collaboratively to improve financial management in the U.S. Government.

According to Rich, most major Internet service providers are now being "fed" all GovNews newsgroups directly from NSF (for details, look at news:gov.usenet.answers).

Rich compares the Usenet system to a news wire service like the Associated Press. In a similar way that AP journalists or
reporters from subscriber newspapers feed stories to the AP network for redistribution, messages sent to Usenet from authorized sources or from individual users are retransmitted to more than 200,000 servers globally. The servers, in turn, make the messages available to tens of millions of users.

"If the World Wide Web is the Internet's library, then Usenet is its newspaper. The GovNews newsgroups will facilitate the delivery of government information to your cyberspace doorstep," says Rich.

Usenet originated in the late 1970s as a way to distribute messages via machines running Unix to students at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and the University of North Carolina. in Chapel Hill, N.C. Currently, there are over 25,000 newsgroups segmented into hierarchies with such names as comp (for computer), news, rec (recreation), sci (science), soc (society), talk, misc (miscellaneous) and alt (alternative).

Richard Bjorklund, NSF senior Unix analyst and a volunteer on the GovNews project, says the project provides a forum for moving discussion out of the technical realm into a practical realm and for connecting the public, government agencies and government staff. In his vision of the future of GovNews, people participate in the government process at all levels.

"I see a commercial fisherman able to follow what various fishery departments are doing that affect his job. He would know what OSHA and [the Department of the] Interior are doing, as well as any pending regulations. He would not need to spend hours trying to find information. He would have a chance to offer his viewpoint and feedback, even in the draft process of legislation and regulation," says Bjorklund.

Another volunteer, Steven Clift, is focusing on state and local government initiatives. He serves as project coordinator for North Star, the Minnesota government's online initiative, and is helping to bring state and local participation into the GovNews program.

The question Clift is trying to answer: "How can we make this valuable to people who are delivering services every day? For example, for travel managers of different services, how can we help save money on motor pools?" Clift also wants to craft topics that will be of direct value to people in local government.

GovNews can help individuals more easily find a peer group to discuss issues and problems, he says, and also encourage best practices, such as people in Finland, Sweden and Canada sharing information on snow-removal management.

For Clift, the major challenge with all connectivity is to make it available to those without a strong knowledge base in technology. Thus, GovNews creates a directory for people to find the information they need to do their job. "The strength of the directory is the killer aspect of GovNews," says Clift.

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