Federal Computer Week

AUGUST 18, 1997


NASA's Electronic Handbooks Offer Paper-Free Management

BY HEATHER HARRELD (heather_harreld@fcw.com)

Researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center have developed a software tool that they say enables the largest end-to-end, completely electronic use of the Internet by the federal government to date.

The tool, called Electronic Handbooks (EHBs), is designed to eliminate all paperwork required to manage complex tasks, such as processing grants, patents, health care records and law enforcement data. The tool creates online handbooks to guide people through complex processes that used to be performed using paper documents. The EHBs include a graphical user interface on the front end that provides menus and forms, a back-end database and underlying software that drives the forms process.

The tool has been applied by NASA for the past two years to its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. During that time, researchers have been working bugs out of the software, said Barry Jacobs, senior research computer scientist at Goddard's National Science Space Data Center.

Each handbook is in the format of a hard-copy book, with chapters that describe participants' roles throughout the process and then allow participants to complete these roles online. All portions of the process - even final negotiations for the awards - take place online, Jacobs said.

"We've proven ourselves with one of NASA's toughest programs [with a product] that's generic enough to handle contracts of all types all over the federal government," Jacobs said. "We cut across 10 NASA centers, and we cut across all subprocesses, from solicitation development, negotiations and so forth. The handbooks model reduces development costs because [they] require no programming. [They] reduce end-user software distributed costs because all you need is a Web browser."

SBIR Applicants Must Use New Tool

This year, all firms applying for SBIR funds will be required to use the EHBs, said Jacobs, who conceived the electronic handbook idea more than 10 years ago. SBIR, which manages about 50 percent of all of NASA's new contracts, each year receives about 2,500 proposals for SBIR grants.

The tool allows the more than 3,500 NASA officials who work on the SBIR program to reduce by one-third the time required to process the proposals, Jacobs said. NASA officials receive e-mail from their superiors assigning them a role in the review process for the proposals. The e-mail contains a Web address with the location of the handbook that contains all the documents the specific user needs to review.

While NASA so far has only applied the EHBs to its SBIR program, agency officials are building EHBs to eliminate paperwork for several other processes, such as mission management, patents management, large procurement management and grants management.

Jacobs and his team members plan to present the tool in conjunction with the Small Business Administration to the 11 other federal SBIR programs, all of which use paper processes. Because NASA developed the tool in partnership with Vienna, Va.-based REI Systems Inc. under an SBIR grant, the product will be available license-free to any government agency.

Shyam Salona, vice president of REI, said his company developed the tool conceived by Jacobs and the applications for the SBIR program and several other NASA program processes. The software could be used by any agency that has users who are working on the same process but who are separated geographically, he said.