Sree's Stories

Monday, November 3, 1997

Project Seeks to Make Finding Data
On the Web Less Irritating

By SREENATH SREENIVASAN

Anyone frustrated with how difficult it can sometimes be to find useful information on the World Wide Web should understand Eliot Christian's obsession.


Credit: Carol Powers for The New York Times

Eliot Christian, a Government computer specialist, has made it his mission to bring order to data on the Web.

"I am tired of trawling through dozens of pages looking for specific data," Christian said. "Why should it be so hard? All these companies think that as long as their data is on their site, it will be automatically served up for everyone. It's a fantasy."

As such, he has made it his mission to bring some order to the chaos he sees around him. Christian is a computer specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey, in Reston, Va., who primarily works with earth science information.

But he has spent the past six years involved in an ambitious project: trying to get various government and commercial information providers around the world to agree to a global standard for providing access to information. Considering the jumble of sources out there, that is not an easy task.

Enter Christian's pet project, the Global Information Locator Service, known as GILS. What started as a way to make global environmental data more accessible is now a multinational effort that has, among other things, brought some standardization to federal data access. The project is a wide-reaching collaboration by government, industry and academia in the United States and around the world.

Christian's agency contributes his time to the GILS initiative because his job is to make earth science information accessible to the public. He is part of a cooperative effort that includes hundreds of experts in countries including Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, as well as the European Commission. Emblematic of the sometimes haphazard nature of the Internet is that GILS is also often called the Government Information Locator Service.

"No matter what the name, the goal is the same," said Toni Carbo, dean of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's quite simple. The U.S. government is the world's largest producer and user of information. For business executives, researchers and individual citizens to have access to that information is essential. GILS helps in that process because it serves as an atlas that combines all the maps to the territory in one place."

With GILS, instead of visiting numerous sites to do a search on a particular topic, a computer user can search many sites from one location. For instance, at the Fedworld site, a user can search across several federal agency collections at one time.

With the government, GILS acts as a card catalogue that describes resources throughout agencies, and provides assistance in obtaining that information. GILS works with text search engines, but the approach can also deal with photographs, films and complex information sources -- for example, chemical formulas.

Examples of sites that use the GILS system can be found at www.usgs.gov/gils/showcase/.

There is another important difference between GILS and Web indexers or "crawlers" like Excite or Alta Vista. Crawler systems only index static Web pages. While these crawlers can find company brochures, they cannot easily index information that lies within a data base.

“If you're in business, you ignore GILS and efforts to standardize at your own peril.”

Jim Restivo,
president, Blue Angel Technologies


Take, for example, a resource like the Securities and Exchange Commission's Edgar data base site, a popular source of corporate information. A Web indexer would only find the few pages of help screens and similar descriptions. It would not find the millions of documents that are stored in the data base and retrievable by a query search.

"GILS is a way of applying human description to information resources, particularly at an aggregated level; many of these resources are big, rich and complex, and are not simply collections of static Web pages, which can be found by a Web indexer," said Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information in Washington. From the user's point of view, he said, sites employing GILS are viewable using the Web.

"If you're in business, you ignore GILS and efforts to standardize at your own peril," said Jim Restivo, president of Blue Angel Technologies, a software company that produces tools for managing highly structured information. "With all this confusing array of information out there, you won't find quality answers to your questions if we keep going down this path."

Others are more skeptical about the reach of GILS and equivalent standards. "While they have a good idea, I think the technology they have chosen is too complicated and may not be the right one some years from now," said Michael Schwartz, who is a senior scientist for At Home Network in Redwood City, Calif. "While high-end librarians are finding it useful, Joe Citizen isn't ready for it yet."

Christian sees more than just technology as a barrier to standardization on the Internet. "If it were just a technology problem, it would be solved by now," he said. "It's also a matter of different cultures. In the U.S., we believe that information is for the public good, and that it must flow freely. In some countries, especially in the developing world, they don't understand that concept and the bureaucrats would rather keep the information under their control."

He added, "While some nations are only now coming to grips with how to make their public records public, places like Canada are far ahead of the U.S."

A federal mandate requires all Cabinet-level agencies to be GILS compliant. Some big agencies like the Defense Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Treasury Department are more GILS compliant than others.

"We see it as an important part of implementing a standard way to make public information available on the Internet," said Terri Beaudin, a project manager at Fulcrum Technologies Inc., an information-retrieval software company in Ottawa. "Having standard ways of getting information is a compelling reason for business to get involved."

Among the 5,000 sites that are currently using the broader search standard that GILS is based on are AT&T, Ameritech and Hyundai. GILS does not require information to be provided free; it just enables companies to have their data ready for access from other places. They can continue to charge access fees.

"The world of education is also waking up to the importance of standardization," said Gary Rowe, chief executive of Insite Learning Inc., an Atlanta-based educational consulting and production company. "Learning can no longer be confined to printed books, but has to incorporate the whole world of multimedia. To do that, there has to be a way to integrate and find all these resources. Right now there isn't.

"That's why a standard like GILS is important if we are to find all the information we need," Rowe said. "We aren't there yet, but that is the direction we need to go."


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