U.S. Government uses P2P to share data

Dozens of U.S. government agencies have banded together to use a form of peer-to-peer (P-to-P) technology to provide up-to-date statistics and other government information to the public from a central location on the Web.

As many as 70 agencies have built a portal site that aims to provide the public with fast access to facts and figures from agencies including the Department of Census, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The portal was opened officially to the public this week and can be found at http://www.fedstats.net.

The system will also allow the agencies to share data with each other in a more efficient manner for the purpose of compiling government reports, said Brand Niemann, a computer scientist at the EPA who helped develop the system.

The overall goal was been to develop a cost-effective way for agencies to present their most current data to the public and to find a more effective method for sharing up to date government data among themselves, he said.

Instead of buying additional servers and hiring extra IT staff to set up and manage the new system, the government looked to P-to-P technology as a foundation on which it could build a solid file-sharing system that makes use of computing equipment already in place, Niemann said.

"Nine months ago we said we wanted more than just categorized links," he said. "We wanted the actual data from each agency to stay where it is, in the form it is in, but to be available at one location."

The system is based on a software platform called NXT 3 from Lehi, Utah-based NextPage Inc. NextPage calls itself a P-to-P company, although it's model differs somewhat from the file-sharing model popularized by companies like Napster Inc.

Government agencies are continuously updating statistical information stored in their databases. Each time a user makes a request for data at the FedStrats.net portal, NextPage's software automatically trawls the information from computers at the agencies involved. The system uses XML (extensible markup language) to make a user's searches more effective, according to Bruce Law, vice president of corporate marketing t NextPage.

Not only the public benefits from the system. Government agencies compile reports regularly that require them to gather up to date information from each other. Previously, collecting that new information was done more or less manually each time a new report was compiled. The NextPage software allows each agency to create a "template" for the report it is creating, which automatically gathers the relevant data from the other agencies at the time the report is compiled, Law said.

The Bureau of Census, for example, compiles a statistical revue each year that draws on information from numerous agencies. The Bureau of Census can now create a template that defines where each agency's data should fit into its statistical revue. When the agency compiles its report, the system gathers the newest information from other agencies and assembles it using the template.

The NextPage software can handle a variety of file types, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Word or Excel, and automatically formats those files for access over the Web, Law said.

Overall, the system should help end users gain access to government data in a more efficient way than before, and improve the efficiency with which the agencies share their data, according to Niemann of the EPA.

Niemann would like to see the software used more widely within the government. Eventually, federal workers should be allowed to upload new data from the road using handheld computers and other gadgets, and that information should be available to the public instantly.

In addition to government institutions, NextPage said its software has been used in the legal, accounting, banking and insurance industries.

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