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Patterns of Exemplary Practice in Electronic Access to Information

When the practices across all 22 organizations were taken together, the most interesting and significant examples fell into eight categories. These categories provide a way of organizing the results in a way that highlights the implications for electronic access generally. Other practices, occurring at a lower frequency among these organizations, are described separately.

Proactive Acquisition

Among the organizations studied, several engaged in systematic practices to identify and recruit information providers as well as shape the content received. That is, they were far removed from passive receptors for information that simply respond to the needs or requirements of information sources. Instead, these organizations employed a variety of methods to manage or change the information flowing to the repository by initiating interactions with the sources to influence what kinds of information was produced. This is treated as a different strategy from shaping the information inputs to a repository by some kind of filtering mechanism at the point of reception. A filtering or passive strategy can influence the actions of information providers indirectly by adjusting the contingencies under which information will be accepted. Proactive acquisition, by contrast, means that repository staff (or agents) become involved with information providers in the planning and development of information resources.

Of the organizations included in this study, five reported substantial activities that can easily be considered proactive acquisition. The two that appeared to be the most active in this regard were the Zentral Archive of the University of Cologne and the USDA, particularly the Economics and Statistics System. The Zentral Archive based their proactive acquisition on decisions about the preferred content of the Archive. The Archive’s mission is to promote research and understanding of the social and economic conditions in Europe, both current and historical. Based on this mission, the Archive staff identifies gaps or weaknesses in their holdings and takes action to remedy these shortcomings. They provide criteria and best practice standards for the conduct of future survey research that will produce potential content for the Archive. Staff members are active in networks of researchers to keep in touch with emerging issues and identify data sources in the planning stages. The Archive surveys approximately 10,000 researchers annually to identify work in progress, methods, and potential publications underway or planned. This survey and active networking provides a form of "early warning system" through which the Archive staff can identify where to influence research prior to data collection. These methods can shape the research products in their formative stages rather than waiting to filter unacceptable work when finished.

As sponsors of research and participants in a research community, the USDA is able to influence the directions and priorities of the research community in a proactive way. They are able to influence the direction of new studies through financial support and by participating in research conferences, publications, and sponsoring new research projects. This is discussed in more detail in the section on communities of practice below.

A narrower aspect of proactivity in acquisition was reported by NCES. This agency has an active data collection and research program of its own, which is not considered proactive acquisition in this sense. It is able to influence the actions of other data providers, however. One mechanism is to use the results of the user surveys and focus groups it conducts to identify their needs and issues. This information shapes NCES data collection and is shared with other data collection agencies to influence these other sources. NCES is also a participant in decisions on statistical policy for educational data and the kinds of information flows required by Federal education policies and programs.

Somewhat less extensive activities are found in the ICPSR approach to proactive acquisition. Since this repository maintains a longitudinal data series, it is active in seeking out the results from organizations that conduct data collection at regular intervals. ICPSR also employs a filtering approach by establishing format standards and content criteria for accepting statistical data. ICPSR also takes an active role in developing or improving the quality of metadata supplied by data providers. As with NCES, this repository takes an active role in professional and government groups that work with statistical policies and standards, all of which can influence the kinds of data sets offered for acquisition. In addition, ICPRS sponsors educational programs for researchers, covering research and statistical methods.

Proactive relationships with data providers and users are central to NYDCJS’s role in state government. Due to its prominent position in the governance of the justice system in NY State, the agency has some considerable authority relative to data providers and users. The primary focus of this authority is the repository consisting of criminal histories and related crime data. The kinds of data collected, collection and processing procedures, and controls for access and use are all established by state and Federal policies and regulations. The Commissioner in charge of DCJS also has oversight authority for the other justice agencies in the executive branch of state government: State Police, parole and probation agencies, and corrections. This agency staff is thus engaged in the overall policy making and operations that control the collection, storage, and access to most state and local justice information resources.

A current example of this role for DCJS is evident in efforts to support transitions to a new incident-based reporting system. Incident-based data, reporting individual crimes, is distinct from but closely related to the case-based data that makes up the existing criminal history and court data repositories. Criminal history repositories are well-established and highly standardized among justice agencies, but the old incident-based systems are in the process of revision to conform to a revised and expanded Federal system.3 NYDCJS has been proactive in promoting implementation of the new system and in seeking funding for local justice agencies to do the same.

When comparing the agencies with a record of proactive acquisition to the others, a clear pattern is evident. The agencies with proactive acquisition practices are much more likely to have a specific program or policy mission. The Zentral Archive and ICPSR have specific social science research agendas. NYDCJS has a public safety mission. The Federal agencies all have a recognizable policy or program domain, such as education, agriculture, space exploration, etc. They treat influence on the flow of information into their repositories as one of the ways to pursue the goals in that domain. It is also more likely that the staff of these organizations have training and professional experience similar to that in the provider organizations. They may be part of that larger community of practice and thus be equipped to express preferences and influence data collection. Of course not all of the agencies with specific policy or program missions reported substantial proactive acquisition. But none of the more general repositories appear to invest resources in this kind of external activity.

3 The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report system, started in 1929, was expanded into the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) in the late 1980’s. Since then, the US Department of Justice has been working with states and localities to bring them into NIBRS. Currently 34 states have certified systems, with work toward certification under way in all but two of the remaining states.