OMB mulls evolving beyond GILS

'Technology has made searches easier for most things, but there still is a body of information that needs advanced preparation and we would like to know how that can be done.'

'OMB's Glenn Schlarman

Rachael Golden

Agency looks for ideas on replacing metadata tagging for document searches

Agencies submit more than 3,000 annual requests to the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for permission to collect public data. And many of those requests turn into a federal record that needs to be searchable by other agencies and the public.

But the records contain more than just text'they can include audio, video and images, including geospatial data. Which leads to the question: Is the current system, known as the Government Information Locator Service, enough?

GILS is based on International Organization for Standardization's 23950 search standard and uses title, author, publisher, date and place.

Called for in the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, it has been active since 1996. But reports from nonprofit and other organizations over the last decade said that agencies use GILS sparingly.

Seeking better ideas

Now OMB is asking whether technology has surpassed GILS, which officials said relies on metadata tagging, and whether there is something that is less costly and more effective for searching the mounds of government data.

'The question is whether we want to go down the GILS road again, or hasn't current search technology leapfrogged metadata tagging?' said Glenn Schlarman, chief of OMB's information policy and technology branch. 'GILS is time-consuming and arduous to do.'

OMB, through the General Services Administration, recently released a request for information asking vendors for ideas for more 'efficient and effective information retrieval and sharing.'
Responses were due Oct. 21, and OMB expects to analyze the answers this month.

The RFI lays out several scenarios'which Schlarman called a 'bake-off''representing feasible search requests that might be submitted to federal databases.

Two examples would be researching unexplained illnesses among defense contractors or sharing law enforcement information across jurisdictions.

The scenarios will provide context and help vendors frame their responses, said Andy Hoskinson, an OMB support contractor with Unisys Corp.

Improving online access

OMB released the RFI in part to meet the mandates set forth in the E-Government Act of 2002, which calls for improving online access to government information.

'We could just issue policy to meet the letter of the E-Government Act, but that would not meet the spirit of the law,' Schlarman said. 'Technology has made searches easier for most things, but there still is a body of information that needs advanced preparation and we would like to know how that can be done.'

Schlarman said OMB hopes to find cutting-edge technology that doesn't necessarily depend on metadata tagging.

While OMB is questioning whether GILS has outlived its usefulness, other federal experts believe GILS is being used effectively.

Eliot Christian, a data and information systems manager at the Geological Survey, said tagging is one aspect of metadata, but is not what GILS is focused on.

'GILS says we ought to have interoperable search, but it never required metadata tagging,' Christian said.

Christian added that tagging doesn't work very well because it is usually done by people who are not trained to catalog, such as the author or owner of information.

'All search should be made interoperable so you know how to present it and when the results come back, you know how to look at them,' he said. 'GILS is a standard way of search response and request.'

The Federal Enterprise Architecture Data Reference Model is placing heavy emphasis on metadata. The DRM will separate data into three categories: context, sharing and description.
But the DRM also relies heavily on tagging of certain data that is to be widely shared.

Christian said officials are looking at individual data items rather than characterizing blocks of information.

While OMB has yet to determine whether a request for proposals will come from this RFI, interest from the public and private sector in improving federal data is strong.

Kurt Sanford, president and chief executive officer for Lexis Nexis U.S. Corporate and Federal Markets, said the RFI 'could quite possibly be the most important e-government initiative envisioned to date.'

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