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Report: Government files a mess

Government databases need major upgrades before people can abandon long lines and copy machines forever, according to a new study.

Public records are popping up all over the Net, but government databases need major upgrades before people can abandon long lines and copy machines forever, according to a study released today.

Titled "Toward the Digital Government of the 21st Century," the new report says private industry and government must undertake research on how public information from across the nation can be aggregated, updated, and made easily accessible through several Web sites.

"The Internet has exacerbated the expectations of people. We need to provide citizens with more access to the information the government has about them as well as other data they seek," said Herbert Schorr, executive director of University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute, who coauthored the study as part of a research proposal.

But databases for most local and federal agencies can't go online in snap, "The federal government is still providing information services using technology that is, in large measure, several generations behind the current Internet and Web style of information," the report states.

As demonstrated at recent Federal Trade Commission privacy hearings, there are intense privacy concerns about citizens' records being plastered online and subsequently used inappropriately or to commit fraud.

The report calls for better database security and more organization to address these fears.

Also coauthored by Salvatore Stolfo, a computer scientist at Columbia University, the study calls for the development of advanced applications to increase the public's quick access to information.

The authors recommend the following from the government:

  • Coordinate agency research so that more government databases are compatible and therefore simpler to connect to the Net.

  • Create standards for maintaining federal and local statistics so they can be easily combined and published online.

  • Develop secure transactions systems so the public can use the Net to pay taxes, report business activity, or file for government benefits.

  • Allow data to be seen using multiple interfaces.

  • Build "virtual agencies" so that people from around the country can access documents or services from other state offices.

    In February, Vice President Al Gore unveiled Access America, which lays out 1,200 actions to bring government services into the digital age.

    President Clinton also approved a $300 million plan to build a faster Internet with better applications for the government and public research centers, known as the Next Generation Internet.

    The new study mirrors many part of Access America and NGI. "We want information dissemination and gathering through the Internet," Shorr said today. "I think this is going to be one of the applications of the Next Generation Internet."