Portal effort a lesson in data integration

What do the river rapids of Colorado’s Gunnison Gorge, hiking trails in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest and wildlife viewing areas in Arizona’s Coronado National Memorial have in common?

Information about all those recreational facilities is being pulled into a portal Web site called Recreation OneStop under development by the federal government as part of a plan by President Bush to create efficiencies in government and make it more accessible by the public.

While it sounds good on paper, behind the scenes the technical difficulties of pulling data together from so many diverse sources are proving to be a challenge.

“The challenge is integrating the resources, people and IT systems that the various agencies already have in place so it appears seamless to the fisherman who wants to find that perfect spot,” says Scott Cameron, deputy assistant secretary for performance and management at the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), which is leading the Recreation OneStop initiative.

Cameron has a yearly budget of US$1.5 million to meet the challenge.

Recreation OneStop’s mission is to create a database of recreational information, maps and reservation services for parks, museums, forests, lakes, historic sites and urban parks run by federal, state and local governments. The effort builds on the 4-year-old Recreation.Gov Web site, a directory of about 2,200 federal recreational facilities.

“How do you build data standards is our big question,” says John Mahoney, project manager for Recreation OneStop, which combines the work of 10 federal agencies and soon will include state and local governments.

“XML is a godsend for keeping data structured,” says Keith Stewart, Web application developer for Recreation.Gov. “We used XML to import data from their database to our database.”

Stewart also is creating a template that includes nearly 40 data fields needed for Recreation.Gov listings, such as addresses, phone numbers and available activities.

These first steps should be rather simple, Stewart says. But the next ones get more difficult as maps are incorporated and Recreation.Gov starts to transform into Recreation OneStop.

“There is a big issue around how do we take on Geographic Information Systems and geospatial information. It is very data intensive,” Stewart says. Plans to solve the issue are still in the works, he says.