The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is already famous for using space to conquer distant frontiers, but now its scientists believe they can use cyberspace to conquer government paperwork.
If that doesn't sound like a big deal, consider this: The little car that NASA is using to tool around Mars may be pretty good at photographing sunsets, but it's not helping you file your income tax. NASA's "Electronic Handbooks," however, may be able to do this.
"It's cheap, easy to build and easy to learn," said Barry E. Jacobs of NASA's Goddard National Space Science Data Center. "It enables me to manage an entirely paperless and programming-less documentary process." All you need, Jacobs said, is an ordinary word processor and access to the Internet.
Any layman who logs on to let Jacobs introduce him to the mechanics of Electronic Handbooks will probably question the phrase "easy to learn," but the idea itself is relatively simple.
Just by calling an agency's Internet address, a government "customer" would be able to log on to his or her own private corner of the agency's database, where all the necessary forms would await along with a step-by-step Electronic Handbook that explains what needs to be done.
Fill out the forms, hit "enter," and the proper person in the agency would have the "paperwork," whether it be a passport application, a bid for a government contract, an application for a farm subsidy payment or an income tax return.
Instantly the customer's data would appear in the agency's files wherever it was required. Anytime it is updated, changes would be instantly and automatically made throughout the database. Transactions would be coded for security, filed, stored and eventually archived, all without a printout.
Jacobs contends that Electronic Handbooks would be unique in the government because they use a single large program that can ingest any kind of government form and translate it into easy-to-use word processor language, no special software required. It is perfect for a consumer's laptop, he says, and it would work for any agency.
Jacobs, 49, came to NASA almost 15 years ago, hired to "invent something" as a research computer scientist at Goddard. After a lot of thought, he decided in 1989 that NASA needed a way to standardize its process of data collection.
Jacobs asked NASA's Small Business Innovation Research program to ask for bids to construct an electronic data management method. Innovation Research, with a budget of $120 million to $150 million per year, provides seed money to small firms that develop ideas that NASA can use.
REI Systems Inc., of Vienna, Va., won the contract, and, working for seven years under Jacobs's supervision, developed "DB Genie," a universal software program that could be used by any federal agency for any task.
The original idea was to use DB Genie on the Innovation Research program itself, "to help them do their entire process," Jacobs said. But once he realized the program could be used anywhere, "I thought, `Oh, my God.' "
Today Jacobs has put Innovation Research's entire program on the Internet as "the largest, end-to-end, completely electronic Internet use in the federal government to date," he said. So far, almost no one outside of NASA knows about it. Jacobs expects that to change.
The Innovation Research Electronic Handbooks include everything from contract applications to alphabetical lists of proposals, to archival data showing where the most applicants live (Huntsville, Ala., home of the Marshall Space Flight Center, by the way) .
Because REI Systems Inc. developed DB Genie for the government, any agency that wants the program can have it for free. The problem, as REI Vice President Shyam Salona said, is "you have to know what you need to do."
This is where REI will make its money -- by helping agencies construct handbooks that their own employees and their agency customers can use. From his experience with the Innovative Research personnel, Jacobs said building the handbooks is "like being a psychiatrist."
Jacobs and Salona discovered that no single employee knew the entire Innovative Research program process, so they interviewed large numbers of people, who in turn built the handbooks as they described their jobs.
It took years, but it worked. This year, Innovative Research is asking its applicants for contracts to familiarize themselves with the handbook, but "we're still accepting floppies" for proposals, Jacobs said. "Next year it's over. They have to apply directly on the Internet."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company