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A Personal History of the Nsf Digital Government Program

The NSF Digital Government Program has its roots (circa 1993) in the NSF High-Performance Computing and Communications Program, and NSF's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois. It was the creation of NCSA's Mosaic software suite of browsers and servers that prompted Larry Brandt, then a Program Manager for the NSF Supercomputer Centers Program, to start promoting a concept of driving innovative IT into government functions and services. At the time, I was Deputy Assistant Director for Computer Information Sciences and Engineering (CISE)1 and Brandt invited me to look at a demo of Mosaic. I was amazed and felt privileged to gaze into the future of a new software paradigm—the genesis of the Web.
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Early in 1993, we began to inform scientists, management, and administrative types of the opportunity for disseminating government information and services to the IT research community through partnership with the NSF and NCSA. Soon other agencies, beginning with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, began to invest additional funds in refining Mosaic at NCSA. Funds from other agencies became available to support the Mosaic effort, but in a broader sense we began to find ardent supporters who shared the broader vision for early government adoption of Web sites throughout the federal government.

Returning to the NSF in 1995 after a sabbatical, I too was inspired by the new Web model and saw the opportunity for the convergence of interests between the academic computer and information sciences and the business and government production/operational computing communities. Brandt remained very committed to developing a program to pursue the connections between IT research and government and business information services. We began a serious campaign to promote IT research for the government’s broad application areas. Our approach was driven by a vision that special government functions could be greatly enhanced by IT research, in areas such as law enforcement, health services, and crisis management, among others. In return, we felt these problem areas would generate very challenging real-world requirements for academic researchers and students.

In talks with the highest levels of NSF management, it was clear that although the NSF was becoming more interested in supporting research on social, behavioral, and economic sciences, no comparable plans would be considered for research directly associated with the business information services world. NSF was happy to see the business world adopting software tools and paradigms from the academic world, but was wary of opening a floodgate of proposals for near-term research, especially research that was close to commercial.

It took at least two years of relentless promoting before we could attract serious IT researchers to join the movement. Once again, the expanding Web helped our case. Resistance to our call was founded on the wide perception that government IT administrators resembled their business-world counterparts who have real-world, real-time commitments and cannot afford any long-term (even one year!) academic research. Our counterargument was that the exploding Web technologies would entice companies in the business world to talk to academics, and perhaps even the government IT world would follow suit. These tensions remain to this day.

With some effort, several experienced computer scientists were recruited to propose a workshop to help define a research agenda. Herbert Schorr, the director of the USC Information Sciences Institute, teamed up with Salvatore Stolfo of Columbia University to co-chair a workshop that validated the notion of an Applied Research Agenda for Digital Government.2 The main thesis of that report, as excerpted here, is as pointed today as it was more than five years ago:

"… The collaborative development of a new applied research domain is critical to help meet the Nation’s growing information service demands. Applied research that considers real-world operating constraints can provide valuable new problems and insights for the academic research domain, leading to new demonstrable and deployable systems. This applied research domain is a National Challenge to provide a transition strategy for migrating Federal Information Services from legacy systems, through the interoperable systems of the Internet, and toward more advanced integrated global systems. A unique opportunity exists for a new paradigm for interaction between Government and citizen; an opportunity to invent the Digital Government for the citizens of the 21st century."

The NSF call for research proposals in Government Information Services came out Sept. 1, 1998 and had about $1.5 million of CISE funding. As of 2001, the NSF Digital Government Program has directed over $28 million in funding over the last three years, accomplishing this by attracting large amounts of co-funding from other NSF and agency programs.

Today the NSF Digital Government Program is concerned with a broad range of IT applied to various application areas, for example, law enforcement; judicial administration; governance, regulation and policy-making; housing, environment, and land use management; education and training; access to community libraries; and emergency management. The problems considered are familiar long-standing ones, such as the issuing of building permits or emergency health services. Such problems are the subject of continuing study, and are a challenge when trying to bring innovation to the government services arena.

Following the events of September 11, the U.S. has been forced to confront the fact that it must prepare to deal with unexpected events—ones that fall far outside the range for which our society can afford to have a planned response. It is very clear that the unique roles of federal, state, and local governments are vitally important in addressing such circumstances. To that end, the NSF Digital Government Program, along with the engineering, and social and behavioral and economic sciences directorates convened a workshop under the leadership of USC/ISI to focus on new developments in IT, engineering, and social sciences that make possible the dynamic construction of highly effective virtual organizations to respond to disasters and other unexpected events.

The workshop report3 includes recommended research areas spanning infrastructure and its protection; risk analysis; organizational response, support, and integration; policy, jurisdiction, and regulation; information management; and networking and communication. Of particular importance, the report recommended the NSF research modalities needed to impact general homeland security R&D—to bridge the cultures in the operational and research communities—must include the support of centers, national testbeds, and pilot programs that build and evaluate large-scale systems.

The NSF Digital Government Program vision takes on heightened importance today, as we contemplate the role of government information systems facilitating the handling of unexpected catastrophic events and more generally in homeland security. The experiences gained in establishing and administering NSF’s Digital Government Program should prove valuable in instructing proper investment strategies for homeland security research.

This has been a personal perspective with the hope it will offer insight to scientists and program managers as to how individual efforts at community building may affect the creation of programs at the NSF as well as other research agencies.

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    1Following the sudden death of Nico Habermann on Aug. 8, 1993, I was Acting Assistant Director, CISE.

    2Research and Development (R&D) Opportunities in Federal Information Services: Towards the Digital Government of the 21st Century. Workshop Report, June 24, 1997;

    3Responding to the Unexpected. Report of the NSF-sponsored workshop (2002);

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