The mad rush to get information online

Shawn P. McCarthy

Are you an infomediary? If you're involved in providing content rather than operating the technical side of a government Web site, or if you work in a data center where access is tightly controlled, you'd better become an infomediary fast. Otherwise, your career days may be numbered.

The buzzword infomediary combines intermediary and information. The Web development world understands it to mean a person or Web site that provides specialized services to enhance information. By focusing on services, an infomediary acts as a direct pathway between users and the data they want.

But wasn't the Web supposed to eliminate such middlemen? Yes. That's what makes an infomediary a new, different sort of survivor. The infomediary's pathway to information is usually a better road than you could find on your own. Infomediaries aren't unnecessary bottlenecks. They add value and navigation through the data flow, rather like Sacajawea guiding an otherwise lost Lewis and Clark expedition.

New model

Old-style middlemen collected, analyzed and distributed data, creating rote lookup or locator services and static reports. Infomediaries will replace the low-level librarians, certain types of lawyers, and people who maintain and control access to large databases.

At the moment, the move toward highly skilled, value-added middlemen is a phenomenon of the commercial Web, but it will move into government data centers, too. New-style middlemen don't control access to data, they provide access and enhance it.

You are an infomediary if you:

' Aggregate data from several sources, not just one

' Place data in context, showing how it relates to and affects other data

' Encourage data manipulation by others who want custom reports and what-if scenarios

' Organize data sources into a drill-through taxonomy to reveal where the data fits in a larger scheme

' Link and interact with additional data sources you don't control.

Rather than simply offering hyperlinks to other services, an infomediary would embed logic in the links to cull specific data. An infomediary doesn't merely collect and display data, an infomediary breathes life into it by showing how it interacts with the world.

You can start down this road simply by putting information and a query form on your Web site. But a real government infomediary should take a cue from business-to-business service providers.

Instead of selling a product, these companies offer information to businesses about suppliers and other businesses. They're like catalogs on steroids, listing contact points and other data with multiple search and sort functions.

Many content managers in the government already provide a similar service for a slice of the public sector.

Changing roles

So what do we call what's happening to the old-style middlemen who are being displaced? Here's another buzzword: disintermediation.

When users have direct access to information and no longer require a mediator, disintermediation has occurred. For example, salespeople who sell static products are being supplanted by service providers who double as analysts and who sell customized products.

Librarians and teachers are being replaced by multimedia specialists who guide and enhance searches.

Journalists might migrate a bit from their current role, but the growth of news and other data will increase the need for filtering the most relevant news and trends. But a large chunk of this work can be automated.

Travel agents will become hunters and packagers of full itineraries rather than single trips, as will anyone who books orders.

Government administrators who respond to requests for information or collect data will become managers of automated tools that cull and slice data in multiple ways.

The Internet has fostered the new economy. Along the same lines, the government's evolving electronic-government initiatives will likely foster a new service dynamic.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider.

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