Is the FirstGov playing field level?

Is the FirstGov playing field level?

The General Services Administration's acceptance of the FirstGov search engine as a gift from philanthropist Eric Brewer 'shelters all the information from current law.' Or so says David LeDuc, manager of public policy at the Software and Information Industry Association of Washington.

Because FirstGov has no congressional oversight, 'they can do whatever they want,' LeDuc said.

The engine is performing more accurately today than a few months ago and it will continue to improve, said David Binetti, president of the FedSearch Foundation and creator of the search engine.

The topics directory, however, still only goes two layers deep for most topics, LeDuc said.

Although the engine can identify which agency to direct a query to, it's not as good as it could be, he said.

Binetti acknowledged that up to 15 percent of visitors don't find what they're looking for on the first try.

'Is it realistic to get 100 percent?' he asked. 'No.'

But LeDuc said vendors that might supply more advanced search engines cannot provide adequate responses to GSA's recent request for information about a new engine because they don't have access to the back end'the search engine's index and database.

The deal

A September 2000 memorandum of understanding between GSA and FedSearch agreed that the engine and database ownership would revert to Brewer's company, Inktomi Corp. of San Francisco, in 2003 [GCN, Aug. 20, Page 1].

The FirstGov team 'brushes everything off,' LeDuc said. 'They have quick answers, they aren't realistic, and now they're suffering.'

Repeated requests to interview Deborah Diaz, GSA's deputy associate administrator for FirstGov, have gone unanswered.

GSA spokeswoman Eleni Martin, however, pointed out that FirstGov has received improvements besides those to the engine.

Visitors now can search state government as well as federal Web pages. They can find links for frequently requested state and local information, locate nearby services, and contact governors and tribal leaders.

In addition, FirstGov will soon add U.S. territories and international portals and will have a 'Browse Government by Topic' link. There are some electronic forms, too.

For the week of Aug. 12 to Aug. 18, GSA reported, FirstGov had 829,453 hits.

But LeDuc said the FirstGov portal could be improved and draw more visitors if its components were open to competition.

The software that FirstGov uses to determine relevancy for its topic directory comes from Ultraseek Corp., a subsidiary of Inktomi.

Autonomy Inc. of San Francisco, which received a GSA contract for its relevancy software before FedSearch entered the picture, was told its software didn't work with Inktomi's.

'Their hands were tied by Inktomi,' said Patrice McDermott, a policy analyst for OMB Watch, a government watchdog organization in Washington.

Bill Piatt, former GSA chief information officer during the Clinton administration, agreed that the topic directory leaves much to be desired, and that other search engines might do a better job. But, he said, FirstGov lacks enough editors to build topic trees similar to engines such as Yahoo.com's.

He added that FirstGov's comprehensive index, housed in the Inktomi search engine, is more important anyhow. The topic directory is only a table of contents, he said.

LeDuc said data in the FirstGov index is inaccessible to other search engines.

But Piatt said, 'There's nothing the FedSearch engine is doing that anybody else couldn't. Inktomi is the only one that has chosen to work hand in glove with the government.' He said other search engine providers have found it 'not economically viable' to spider agencies' sites.

LeDuc said access to the index requires fees in the neighborhood of $100,000, and much of it is filtered government information. 'You've got people in a back room determining what to show,' he said. Because of the arrangement between FedSearch and GSA, he said, FirstGov's resources are sheltered from other search engines.

Binetti said two things distinguish FirstGov's search engine from others.

'Yahoo and AltaVista, as a matter of daily business, spider the same content that FirstGov spidered,' Binetti said. 'What makes FirstGov different is, the information is official' and more comprehensive.

'We have everything,' Binetti said. 'If you're looking for something obscure, you'll find it in FirstGov, and it won't necessarily be in AltaVista.'

That is exactly the problem, LeDuc said: a proprietary search engine and a private relationship between FedSearch and GSA.

When FirstGov got started, GSA did not close the door completely on other search engines, LeDuc said.

So-called bronze links let other vendors' search engines link to FirstGov, 'which is nothing,' he said.

So-called silver links gave an engine a search box that would eventually move a visitor to the FirstGov site.

And, lastly, gold links allowed a direct line to the index housed in the Inktomi search engine.

But, LeDuc said, there was a whole list of requirements to get such links.

Fee peeve

'We're talking about public information,' he said. 'This should be made available. If AOL or Lycos wants to tap into the index, they should be able to do so, and it should not cost much.'

He said FedSearch would charge at least $100,000 for engines such as those of
FedWorld, Google, Govbot, GovSpot, Government Information XChange, and the Government Guide of Netscape Communications Corp. and America Online Inc. to use the index. All such engines can search government sites, but they do not have the direct access that FedSearch enjoys because of the agreement with GSA for the information pipeline.

The September 2000 memorandum between GSA and FedSearch stated: 'FirstGov will take responsibility for ensuring that the mutual confidentiality agreement it executes with Inktomi Corp. will also apply to personnel at the individual federal agencies who will be given access to Inktomi's proprietary information in order to establish the direct access.'

That prevents other search engines from competing unless they pay, LeDuc said.

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