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The Government Information Locator Service (GILS)

May 2, 1994

Other links within GILS 5/2/94 document:


Government information is fundamental to modern societies. Although individual Federal agencies may recognize their responsibility to maintain readily accessible inventories of their records and other information resources, there needs to be a collective vision across the Federal government for information dissemination to the public. The vision of a Government Information Locator Service (GILS) presented here responds to that need and places this Federal vision in the context of broader issues such as promotion of diverse information services.

GILS is emerging at a revolutionary period in the history of information processing where technological breakthroughs have radically expanded the range of feasible strategies. In particular, the realization of peer computer networks allows for a decentralized approach where many different information sources are separately maintained yet are comprehensible as a coherent whole from the unique perspective of a specific user. GILS depends on this network approach to preserve the decentralized character of Federal information dissemination and the wide diversity of sources, both public and private, that serve the public need for information access.

In contrast to a centralized design, a decentralized approach assumes that many different implementations will be separately developed yet will be fully interoperable when implemented. Achieving interoperability is only possible if a stable base of reference is documented and made widely known. In GILS, that reference base is an agreement among active implementors together with Federal representatives. Where fundamental design choices have been made in developing the implementors agreement, those choices have emphasized the use of stable but extensible standards.

The success of GILS does not depend on massive Federal investment or sweeping new directives. Rather, it adopts voluntary information standards in order to build on the efforts of the responsible, talented, and creative people throughout Government and in society already working on information access issues. GILS will use this solid base of widely accepted standards to help agencies and information services focus their initiatives and thereby make the vast range of Government information more accessible to the public.

Policy Context

The Administration's strategic technology policy document entitled "Technology for America's Economic Growth, A New Direction to Build Economic Strength" states:

Every year, the Federal Government spends billions of dollars collecting and processing information (e.g., economic data, environmental data, and technical information). Unfortunately, while much of this information is very valuable, many potential users either do not know that it exists or do not know how to access it. We are committed to using new computer and networking technology to make this information more accessible to the taxpayers who paid for it. In addition, it will require consistent Federal information policies designed to ensure that Federal information is made available at a fair price to as many users as possible while encouraging growth of the information industry. [ 1 ]

On June 25, 1993, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) revised Circular A-130, "Management of Federal Information Resources," to strengthen policies for managing government information (58 F.R. 36068, July 2, 1993). Circular A-130 encourages agencies to use new technologies to make government information available to the public in a timely and equitable manner via a diverse array of sources, both public and private. It states that availability of government information in diverse media, including electronic formats, permits the public greater flexibility in using the information, and that modern information TECHNOLOGY | presents opportunities to improve the management of government programs to provide better service to the public. It also notes that the development of public electronic information networks, such as the Internet, provides an additional way for agencies to increase the diversity of information sources available to the public, and that emerging standards such as ANSI (American National Standards Institute) Z39.50 [ 2 ] will be used increasingly to facilitate dissemination of government information in a networked environment.

OMB Circular A-130 states that agencies shall:

Because the active management of information by agencies is essential to the operation of government and to democratic principles, laws and policies assert a fundamental requirement that Federal agencies maintain readily accessible inventories of their records and other information holdings. The responsibilities of Federal agencies with regard to the management of electronic records are also growing in importance as their reliance on electronic information systems increases. To help the public locate and gain access to public information within agency inventories, the Administration has committed to promote the establishment of an agency-based Government Information Locator Service (GILS).

Working primarily with OMB and the Locator Subgroup of the Interagency Working Group on Public Access (the "Solomon's Group"), Eliot Christian of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) prepared this report to the Information Infrastructure Task Force describing how GILS may be implemented. Development of this report proceeded in tandem with a GILS Profile development project that produced an Implementors Agreement in the voluntary standards process. The GILS Profile project was a Cooperative Agreement between the USGS and Syracuse University, funded by the Interagency Working Group on Data Management for Global Change, with active involvement from several ANSI Z39.50 implementors representing non-government sectors. [ 3 ] The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is now establishing a Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) referencing the GILS Profile Implementors Agreement and making mandatory its application for Federal agencies establishing locators for government information.

Existing law and policy, as articulated in OMB Circular A-130, the Records Disposal Act (Title 44 of the United States Code), and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), already require agencies to create and maintain an inventory of their information systems and information dissemination products. Although compliance with these requirements varies greatly, the incremental cost of making those inventories accessible through GILS is expected to be minimal. Accordingly, participation in meeting the minimum mandatory requirements for establishing and maintaining GILS may be accomplished as a collective effort within existing funds and authorities.

OMB will publish in 1994 a Bulletin following on Circular A-130 that will specify agency responsibilities in GILS and set implementation schedules. A process for ongoing evaluation will also be established to evaluate the degree to which GILS meets user information needs, including factors such as accessibility, ease of use, suitability of descriptive language, accuracy, consistency, timeliness, and completeness of coverage.

The User Perspective

GILS must be many things to many people. It must be comprehensive, yet user friendly. It must answer specific questions, yet enable scanning a wide range of government information. It must be able to answer questions from the most inexperienced users, yet permit in-depth research as well. It must be of direct service to the public, yet not undermine the diversity of existing information sources. Private-sector information providers must be able to participate in GILS and also make their resources known and accessible.

GILS depends critically on other aspects of the emerging National Information Infrastructure. GILS must be implemented with full recognition of individual privacy and intellectual property rights. Agencies will need to ensure that members of the public whom the agency has a responsibility to inform have a reasonable ability to access GILS and the underlying information resources and information dissemination products. Agencies participating in GILS must take care to minimize barriers to use, including equipment and software requirements, cost, and technical complexity.

The public will use GILS either directly or through intermediaries. The distinction is that direct users roam at will, but users of intermediate services take a guided tour. The following are some examples of GILS direct users and intermediaries:

A major advantage of the networked and decentralized design of GILS is that it allows direct users to explore many different aspects of government information. Since direct users are less limited in their searching, they have more flexibility to explore the full complement of available information. For direct users, there is minimal structure across the GILS locator records and the records are interleaved with a vast diversity of other kinds of information. On the Internet, direct users have tools for interacting with people, news, and libraries in addition to GILS (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The public will use GILS either directly or through intermediaries.

In contrast, intermediate services are typically oriented toward a particular user community and present a more focused experience for users searching for information. Intermediate services need not require users to have sophisticated research skills or electronic network access. Government and non-government intermediaries can present GILS information in the full range of communications media and with a variety of interpretative services as appropriate for various communities. Such services can be offered via electronic mail, bulletin boards, FAX, and other media such as CD-ROM (Compact Disk-Read Only Memory), printed publications, telephone help desks, and information kiosks in public places as envisioned in the Administration's Service to the Citizen initiative. [ 4 ]

Clearly, most of the public need for access to government information will be well served through the diverse array of public and private-sector service providers. Casual users and those lacking network access will be served typically through products and services offered by agency or non-government intermediaries such as Federal depository libraries, other public libraries, and private-sector providers. These intermediaries obtain GILS information either as direct users themselves or from other intermediaries, but the extent of government information that may be provided by any particular intermediate service is not prescribed by GILS.

Having unfettered access means that the direct user takes on much more responsibility to construct a context in which the collected information is actually coherent. Accordingly, GILS has certain expectations of direct users, whether researchers or other intermediaries. Direct users of GILS must have network access, be literate in English to at least the secondary-school level, be capable of using a personal computer, and be aware of any limitations of their own hardware or software environment.

Data and Information

Given the huge amounts and vast range of Federal holdings, one might want to synthesize information by combining data from multiple sources as, for example, to support large scale environmental monitoring. It is important to understand that GILS operates at the level of information about data holdings. GILS addresses how to find files but does not address how the contents of those files may be accessed or used.

Users must be aware that data combined from multiple sources should be used with caution and subjected to appropriate review. Except in very strictly defined domains where common practices are rigidly enforced and data processing is well coordinated, there does not exist sufficiently detailed documentation about the data to ensure its appropriate use for purposes other than for which it was initially gathered. This situation is not peculiar to Federal holdings--whenever data is collected and maintained, it is only possible to provide for a limited set of secondary uses.

In some communities of interest, such as the participants in the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, there is strong consensus on the high secondary use value of certain basic data. This perceived value justifies large investments in data management and the establishment of multi-lateral coordination structures such as the Federal Geographic Data Committee established under OMB Circular A-16. Data management issues surrounding the international Global Change Research Program and the work of the Committee on Earth and Natural Resources are also generating some convergence of opinion on raising the level of data management investments.

While there are complex issues surrounding data comparability, it is clear that complete and readily accessible information about data holdings will be a key requirement. GILS does provide a basis for broad accessibility to the highest level description of information holdings.

The Provider Perspective

A key concept of GILS is that it uses network technology to support many different views across many separate locators. [ 5 ] A locator is defined as an information resource that identifies other information resources, describes the information available in those resources, and provides assistance in how to obtain the information.

Although directly accessible via electronic networks such as the Internet, all or part of the GILS contents can also be made available by intermediaries through virtually any media. These alternative mechanisms help assure that the information is available through a diversity of sources, both public and private, and cover the full range of communications media from telephone help though printed publications and up to the most sophisticated electronic network technologies.

GILS organizes a collective set of agency-based locators and associated information services. Being decentralized, responsibilities can be kept close to those who understand and care for the information and who are serving the agency's primary user community. Each agency is responsible for ensuring that its GILS components are continuously accessible to GILS direct users. Certain agencies, such as NARA, the Government Printing Office (GPO), and the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), also have in their primary mission an additional role in helping the public to access information maintained elsewhere in the Government. These agencies will assist in providing GILS services when requested by other agencies.

Services for finding government information take many forms, and the electronic aspects of GILS should be seen within the larger context of government information services (Figure 2). For example, the public is served through information desks in Federal buildings as well as telephone help desks and reference services such as "1-800-USA-MAPS." Many kinds of finding aids are used in such services--printed catalogs and directories are and will continue to be very common. With GILS, it will be much easier for those services to provide information drawing on the full range of Federal information resources rather than just agency-specific resources.

Figure 2. Electronic networks are one aspect of the Government Information Locator Service.

Among the government information finding aids are electronic media, including television announcements about government information available from the Consumer Information Center in Pueblo, Colorado. As interactive television becomes more available to homes, GILS will help to simplify the ways in which those services help the pubic to find Federal information resources. Also within the realm of digital electronic finding aids, there are popular information dissemination technologies such as bulletin boards and CD-ROM's. These personal, print media, and electronic services can be used to publicize GILS contents. These services may also be regarded as information resources, and may be referenced in GILS locator records themselves.

Some digital electronic finding aids use various kinds of networks and so are able to provide access to many different resources, often with a common user interface. In this area, it becomes possible to provide services in GILS where the user can have immediate access not only to information about an information resource, but to the referenced resource itself.

As stated above, GILS takes advantage of network technologies to allow many different information sources to be separately maintained yet be comprehensible as a coherent whole from the unique perspective of a specific user. This is achieved within computer networks that support peer-to-peer relationships and thereby allow for applications to operate using a client-server architecture. All of the server applications that also use the ANSI Z39.50 information search and retrieval protocol can be accessed by GILS direct users.

Because GILS uses interoperable standards for information search and retrieval, information sources referenced in GILS can be placed into virtually any context. Other major Federal government information systems such as the GPO Access System, the NTIS FedWorld system, the National Geospatial Data System, and the Global Change Data and Information System will be accessible to GILS direct users. GILS direct users may have access to a wide range of additional Federal information on the network such as current and historical information on Federal programs and institutions; public notices; law, regulation, policy, and procedural materials; and listings of experts and office locations. Agencies such as NARA, GPO, and NTIS, as well as private-sector information providers, can supplement the GILS Core with access to other Federal and non-Federal information.

Other government (state, local, tribal, foreign, international) and non-government organizations will also be encouraged to institute locators compatible with the standards used in GILS. GILS will accommodate the expressed needs of other government organizations where practical.

Design Principles

GILS is a component of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) that is evolving with guidance from the Information Infrastructure Task Force. [ 6 ] GILS will be interoperable with other component NII initiatives such as the National Spatial Data Infrastructure. GILS is also expected to adapt to and encourage technical innovation, especially in ways that enhance public access to government information.

GILS will conform to national and international standards for information and data processing. Participants in GILS will use voluntary standards processes, e.g., ANSI, the Open Systems Environment Implementors Workshop (OIW), and the Internet Engineering Task Force, to promote interoperability of search and retrieval mechanisms, network communications, user authentication, and resource identifiers, among other essential components. Near-term implementations of GILS will use the Internet and its communications protocols, but GILS is based on the international Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model to be compatible with a wide range of technologies. NIST, working through the OIW, will maintain and publish the application profile specifying GILS compliance.

GILS takes advantage of the network technology known as client-server architecture, which allows locator records to be distributed among multiple independent information servers. Client applications may allow the user to question many servers concurrently and have the answers automatically combined. In this way, GILS allows for agencies to maintain GILS locator records within various information resources optimized for their usual customers, while allowing the locator information to be rapidly collated in different ways to serve different needs.

Functional Requirements

Direct users of GILS must be able to use non-proprietary standard mechanisms to discover information sources and retrieve basic textual information content. These functions are within the scope of the information search and retrieval standard known in the United States as ANSI Z39.50 and internationally as ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 10162/10163. GILS locators must be accessible on interconnected electronic network facilities and must support the currently approved ANSI Z39.50 standard for information search and retrieval. Software conforming with ANSI Z39.50 must also conform to the GILS Profile to provide full functionality to GILS direct users. In particular, the GILS Profile provides for navigating among Federal government locators through the specifications given for the GILS Core locator records. Special provisions are made in GILS to support navigation among GILS locators by using browsing as well as textual searching.

The GILS Profile provides a complete specification of GILS as it makes use of ANSI Z39.50, but also specifies where necessary those characteristics of GILS that are not within the scope of ANSI Z39.50. The GILS Profile does not limit how information is maintained at the source nor how the information is displayed to the user. Access to GILS is expected to be embedded within many different computer applications, ranging from the very simple to those that support concept searching across languages, dynamically interpret natural language, or filter search requests to sift huge amounts of information automatically. Public domain client software that supports access to GILS will be available from GPO, NTIS, and the Clearinghouse for Networked Information Discovery and Retrieval, among others.

Alternative ways to organize and present networked information are encouraged, but agencies participating in GILS will implement such alternatives in addition to supporting access by GILS direct users who employ the currently approved ANSI Z39.50 standard. For example, information organized via the OSI X.500 Directory Services standard can be made accessible also via ANSI Z39.50, thereby enhancing access capabilities. It should also be noted that a GILS direct user will typically use client software that provides access to a variety of information sources that do not comply with the GILS profile but are compliant with various other standards.

Some internal redundancy in GILS is to be expected--there will often be multiple GILS locator records describing the same resource and different search strategies applied by different intermediaries. Such redundancy is appropriate because the same information resources may be described differently to different audiences or for different purposes, and descriptions will cover information resources at a wide range of aggregation. Also, the same information resources may be described differently by different information services that participate directly or as intermediaries in providing Federal information to the public. Because GILS incorporates a variety of automated and manual search techniques, questions will be answered from different perspectives depending on how GILS is used.

GPO (and perhaps NARA, NTIS and other agencies) will maintain a publicly accessible GILS source that provides a comprehensive directory of all GILS Core locator records from a Federal perspective. When appropriate to their respective missions, Federal agencies may also develop and maintain additional interagency topical locators that enhance opportunities for sharing information resources. The following are examples of topics that might be the subject of additional interagency locators: economic indicators, trade information, spatial data, educational and training resources, disaster relief, health information, biodiversity and global change research. Such locators would be similar in function to the GILS Core, but would not necessarily use the GILS Core Elements format nor be focused solely on Federal agency holdings.

GILS supports seamless access not only among locators but directly to referenced information resources. When implemented at both the client and the server, GILS linkages facilitate the electronic delivery of off-the-shelf information products, as well as connection to data systems that support analysis and synthesis of information (Figure 3). Although the trend is clearly in the direction of electronic network availability, much of the referenced information is not available currently in electronic form. GILS always provides information regarding request and delivery procedures for various distribution options as defined by the disseminating organization.

Figure 3. GILS facilitates seamless access among locators and directly to information resources.

The GILS Core

Among the GILS agency components is a set of locator records that reside on GILS accessible servers and are further identified by agencies as belonging to the GILS Core. GILS Core locator records are required to be maintained by Federal agencies having significant information holdings, where each record describes part of the agency holdings. These Core locator records will be accessible comprehensively in the GPO Access system, but can also be aggregated by direct users of GILS to provide selective views of Federal government holdings.

The GILS Core is defined as the set of locator records maintained by the U.S. Federal government, all of which comply with the defined GILS Core Element standards, and all of which are mutually accessible through interconnected electronic network facilities. Each information disseminating agency is responsible for compiling and maintaining its own records in the GILS Core. Information services for access to GILS Core locators, once a direct user has Internet access, will be maintained by Federal agencies without charge to the direct user.

The GILS Core will include records for all information locators that catalog other publicly accessible information resources at least partially funded by the Federal government, as well as for each of the Federal government information systems that include publicly accessible data or information. While GILS Core records can point to any kind of information source, they are especially designed for helping users navigate among a wide array of other locators in various formats. It is not recommended that agencies use the precise format of the GILS Core locator records to describe all types of information resources. For example, the GILS Core Elements format would be a poor choice for describing each agency expert, but it could well be used to describe the resource that contains a compilation of such descriptions. Rather, the agency should maintain various locator records in formats appropriate to the primary user communities being served. When such other locators are published, the originating agency should include corresponding locator records that enable electronic linkage from and to the GILS Core locator.

The entire GILS Core is not likely to contain more than 100,000 locator records. In addition to locator records for information systems, it is estimated that the GILS Core will contain up to 1,000 locator records for each Federal agency that is a major disseminator of public information. Agencies that are not major disseminators will typically have fewer records in their portion of the GILS Core, especially if the agency is relatively small. Where agencies maintain information inventories that have far more records, the agency is expected to aggregate related information resources in a locator record included in the GILS Core and link the detailed inventory to GILS. Each GILS Core locator record is estimated to be less than 1,000 words in length, exclusive of any agency supplemental information that may be introduced as a separate field at the agency's discretion.

It is important to note that the vast majority of information sources accessible to GILS direct users would not be considered part of the GILS Core. Many are not maintained by the Federal Government, do not offer records in the format of the GILS Core Elements, are not on public networks, or are not offered free of charge. Many of these non-Core sources are locators nonetheless and will be very valuable to users in finding information. Also, other relevant sources of Federal information and Federal government information systems may be accessible to direct users of GILS. For example, various agencies and private-sector information providers may develop products that contain GILS Core locator records. Indeed, such derivative and value-added products may often be the first point of access to Federal information resources.

The GILS Profile

The decentralized approach envisioned for GILS requires that many different implementations be fully interoperable when implemented, although developed separately. To assure interoperability, implementors of information systems must have a clear statement of the functions of GILS and the environment within which GILS will be used. That statement becomes part of a GILS Profile that documents the specific agreements established by consensus among active implementors together with Federal representatives. The GILS Profile identifies specific standards, and the chosen subsets, options, and parameters of those standards, needed to achieve interoperability in the specific limited context of GILS.

As an initial step toward a Stable Implementors Agreement recognized by the OIW, a draft profile was created through a Cooperative Agreement between the U.S. Geological Survey and Syracuse University, with active involvement from several ANSI Z39.50 implementors representing non-government sectors. The draft GILS Profile specifies that the GILS locator records are to be available in three record syntaxes--Generic Record Syntax, United States Machine Readable Cataloging (USMARC) [ 7 ], and Simple Unstructured Text Record Syntax (SUTRS).

When using the Generic Record Syntax, the GILS locator elements can support representation in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). (HTML is the format interpreted by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications Mosaic client software when presenting World Wide Web objects, for example.) Provision has also been made in the GILS profile to support switching among navigation techniques, including use of a browsing mode as in Gopher or a searching mode as in bibliographic systems or Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS). The incorporation in GILS of Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) greatly simplifies electronic navigation among locators and other data systems available on interconnected networks.

Content definitions describe the GILS Core Elements required for users to determine the relevance of defined information resources to their needs and to understand subsequent actions to obtain the information resources (see Appendix A). These definitions identify relations among GILS Core Elements, and between GILS Core Elements and the USMARC format for bibliographic data. ANSI Z39.50 definitions of GILS Core Elements in the GILS Profile provide a structure and format for movement of the GILS Core Elements between computer systems. The Abstract Record Syntax and Basic Encoding Rules used to define GILS Core Elements are also suitable for movement of element contents between automated systems using digital media such as tape, diskette, or CD-ROM.

The GILS Profile offers a preferred display format for use in printed media as well as in electronic presentations. Although specified for human viewing in English, it is intended to be extensible to other languages also.

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