Northern Light Technology LLC and the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) have announced a joint venture to develop a Web site to be called gov.search, which promises to be the first search site customized to provide one-stop access to U.S. Federal Government information. The new co-branded subscription site will be beta-tested within the next few weeks, and will then be generally available later this spring.
People looking for government information have encountered a vast patchwork of disparate government sites with inadequate search capabilities. Traditional search engines often touch on only a small portion of government sites, and have no way to classify and focus information searches. Users who stumble on information on one site can not easily find related, more-comprehensive, or free information at another site.
NTIS had been very aware of the magnitude of the problem and had been searching for a solution, according to Sandy Waters, director of strategic planning for NTIS. Fedworld had evolved from a bulletin board service to an information kiosk function (http://www.fedworld.gov), but its search capability is limited by its WAIS engine, and users say it is confusing and difficult to use. Waters called it a 20th century tool. The existing NTIS site (http://www.ntis.gov) is a commercial site designed to sell information products, and also uses WAIS. Earlier attempts to provide comprehensive access to government information, such as GovBot (http://ciir2.cs.umass.edu/Govbot), U.S. Business Advisor (http://www.business.gov), and GILS (Government Information Locator Service), have not proven successful, according to Waters. NTIS decided that a better approach would be to seek the expertise of an external partner—one that would provide a tool for the 21st century.
Northern Light was chosen by NTIS after an extensive review of search engine technologies. According to Waters, Northern Light's ability to create customized co-branded search sites that take advantage of superior classification technology as well as flexible electronic commerce solutions made it an ideal choice for NTIS. "Northern Light provides us the ability to bring together in one comprehensive location a broad and authoritative online library through its many Special Collection resources," he said. "In addition, Northern Light has a unique ability to search across all U.S. Government Web resources, and the NTIS extensive collection of government scientific, technical, engineering, and business-related information. Entering into this joint venture with Northern Light to develop the gov.search product required that our collaborator be able to provide a responsive service and support organization. The Northern Light transaction-handling structure met our requirements, and assured us that we would be able to satisfy the needs of customers searching for government information. Northern Light was also chosen for its comprehensive understanding and experience in the information retrieval business."
Leslie Ray, director of partnership marketing for Northern Light, was very enthusiastic about the new product. She stated that the staff at NTIS had been forward-thinking, flexible, and very responsive, and that the agency had moved faster on the project than she had seen with some private companies. David Seuss, CEO of Northern Light, said, "We are pleased and honored to have been selected by NTIS to develop gov.search and know that it will become the definitive Web destination for those interested in finding high-quality information about and by the U.S. Federal Government."
Waters said that NTIS provided Northern Light with an initial list of 4,000 to 5,000 government Web sites. These have already been crawled a number of times by the Northern Light search crawler to establish frequency of updates to the sites. Waters noted that not all government sites have .gov or .mil in the URL. Some sites with .org and .com may be government sponsored or hosted, so a procedure has been established to validate sites. He estimates that there are between 25 and 50 new government sites coming online each week. The goal for gov.search is to encompass the entire universe of federal sites, possibly numbering over 10,000. Sites will be asked to include a pointer to gov.search. According to Waters, "The current NTIS.gov and FedWorld.gov sites will be modified and integrated with the new online product when released."
The gov.search site will provide subscribers access to a specialized database of government Web sites combined with all NTIS title and abstract data since 1964, plus the Northern Light Special Collection. The Special Collection contains the full text of resources such as Defense Daily magazine, FedNet Government News, and more than 5,400 other journals, magazines, and newswires. Search capabilities that will be incorporated include limiting searches by date, source, or subject, and searching for documents by publication name or article title as well as searching selected Web sites by title, or by URL. Users will be able to search for documents and Web sites from a specific agency or branch of the government, and limit the search by date.
The gov.search service will be available under several subscription options. Users who want to explore the service, assess the value, or who have a short-term need, can sign up online for a day pass, good for 24 hours and costing $15, payable by credit card. Individual passes to the service will be available for $30 a month or $250 for a year. Enterprise annual passes are available for corporate or government agency use, starting at $1,000 a year for five users, with higher fees based on the number of users. The passes will pay for access to the universe of government-specific information, its organization and classification, and tailored search capabilities. Individual document purchases will incur an extra cost.
The announcement of the plan for gov.search was made in mid-March in Washington, D.C. at FOSE '99, the leading technology trade show for the government IT community. There was reportedly an excellent response to the news of the new service among government agencies, which, like the public, need a comprehensive research tool for the massive numbers of government information products. While some might question the necessity of agencies and citizens paying for information generated by the government (though we do pay already), serious researchers and professional information seekers will likely recognize the value of having a comprehensive portal with authoritative classification and searching of the information. The individual government sites with freely available information will also not disappear.
Searchers with extra-small budgets might also want to keep in mind two sites that are featured in the government chapter of the forthcoming book by Nora Paul and Margot Williams (Great Scouts! CyberGuides for Subject Searching on the Web, available June 1999 from Information Today, Inc.). Federal Government Resources on the Web (http://www.lib.umich.edu/libhome/Documents.center/federal.html) from the University of Michigan Library offers an evaluative guide and searching of both Web and non-Web government information. Statistics can be located through the FedStats site (http://www.fedstats.gov). According to the authors, "FedStats is the one-stop shopping gateway to the incredible wealth of statistical information gathered by federal government agencies." We hope this site remains in operation.