Tender care will bring valuable data resource to life

Begun in December 1994 with the issuance of Office of Management and Budget Bulletin
95-01, this well-intended but unfunded requirement depended on commercial investment in
unproven technologies. During the past two years, federal agencies have struggled to
understand and implement this networked information service for "structured metadata
for agency information sources," as the bulletin describes it. With such a complex
requirement and no money, it is little surprise that GILS has had trouble getting off the
ground.


IRM folks in federal agencies have spent much of the past two and a half years trying
to identify and address the stated objectives of the GILS mandate. Few agencies understood
the Z39.50 international standard on which GILS is based. None had experience with the
1992 version required in the federal standard.


When the OMB bulletin was published, no commercial implementations were available,
although a handful of companies offered products shortly afterwards.


More importantly, since the GILS mandate, the World Wide Web has overtaken and
overwhelmed nearly all online efforts. GILS is a great idea that has become a reality via
the Web.


Still, a few federal agencies have set up a handful of servers that comply with the
Federal Information Processing Standard 192 stemming from OMB Bulletin 95-01. Most
agencies have sent their GILS records to GILS services at the National Archives and
Records Administration or to the National Technical Information Service's Fedworld. But
many have ignored the mandate, focusing their meager resources on the greater leverage
possible with Web sites.


It's an ominous sign when all the popular references to a particular information
technology appear in its rival technology. That is, the Internet and particularly the Web
have many references to GILS. I have yet to see a Z39.50 citation to a Z39.50 site,
although I'm sure one exists.


I have never seen an ad for a GILS client or server, nor have I used one. In the
massive bulk of marketing materials that fill my in-box, I have yet to see a single
brochure offering GILS software or training. Aren't the GILS vendors marketing their
software? Is no one giving training in setting up and supporting GILS?


As webmaster for a large, customer service-oriented agency, I read thousands of
electronic mail messages from customers. Not once has a customer commented on our GILS
implementation. A fair number have asked how to use their Web browsers to read our pages.


GILS should be consigned to the history books as a well-intended solution overtaken by
a superior technology.


If our customers were clamoring for GILS services, I might believe otherwise. What our
customers want is more Web services, more accurate and timely information, more
interactive applications and faster, more complete e-mail replies.


Nor does GILS or Z39.50 appear to make an impression on the private sector. The
commercial trade press does not cover it. In stark contrast, articles on the Web appear
literally everywhere, including the front page of my community newspaper.


And anyhow, why should agencies deploy costly GILS servers when Yahoo, AltaVista,
Infoseek, Excite, Lycos, Magellan, McKinley and other search engine services build
databases of links and report federal information addresses for free? OMB should encourage
agencies to register their GILS records with these information brokers, which would save
taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.


The Z39.50 mandate in FIPS 192 is technologically obsolete. Web servers are included
with every host computer and network server now being shipped, and there are far more Web
sites than ever envisioned by the GILS developers.


If Web searches used the GILS methodology, search scope would have to be tightly
curtailed compared to that offered by Web search engines.


Instead of using databases built during off hours, users would initiate network
searches during peak time, placing undue burden on the Internet.


Nevertheless, I believe the public needs a comprehensive window into the federal
government's information assets.


GILS has been less successful than its framers hoped, but a fundamental revamping would
improve its chances. It needs only modest investment and effort by federal agencies.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.


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