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Group unveils government search index

Federal officials characterize a new search service indexing millions of pages of official documents as a breakthrough in their attempts to reinvent government.

Federal officials today characterized a new search service indexing millions of pages of official documents as a breakthrough in their attempts to reinvent government.

But critics said a fee to use the service will keep the information out of the reach of the average citizen.

The National Technical Information Service (NTIS) today unveiled Gov.search, a service it says indexes more than 20,000 government sites and 3.8 million Web pages. The service, which was developed in a joint partnership with Northern Light Technology of Cambridge, Massachusetts, costs $15 for a day pass or $30 for monthly use.

"What we noted being in the information business for a long time is that [government Web sites] frequently are not found by the vast majority of search engines," said Sandy Waters, director of strategic planning for NTIS, which is charged with collecting, cataloguing, and disseminating government research and information.

In addition to providing short descriptions of government Web sites, Gov.search indexes thousands of reports on the environment, energy, and health care dating back decades. Previously those reports were indexed through proprietary services found at libraries.

Although the government information portal may streamline the process of locating obscure government reports, not everyone is applauding the new service. Critics say the prices charged will further isolate students and average citizens from the federal bureaucracy.

"People sincerely want to be able to try to figure out what the government is doing," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, which has fought to open up public access to government documents. "Maybe people would be less apathetic if they could read the documents the government produces."

Waters said the NTIS is required to be self-supporting, making it necessary to charge for its services. "Our intent was to provide a useful product and research tool that is fee-based but does not interfere with anyone's ability to find content" through alternate channels, he said.

The service allows users to find government information on hundreds of obscure topics. Entering the string "mantrip," for instance, yields hundreds of official documents about the device, which is used to move miners in and out of mines. Searches can be limited by publication name, article title, or the particular issuing agency.