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Jewish World Review April 19, 2001 / 26 Nissan, 5761

Mark Roberti

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Consumer Reports

Napster technology finds legit role -- WHO would have thought the technology that illegally distributed millions of Britney Spears MP3s would help government bureaucrats trade statistics on carbon dioxide emissions? Peer-to-peer file sharing, the technology behind Napster, is moving into offices and cubicles, and this time it's entirely legal.

The federal government recently unveiled a new Web site that uses peer-to-peer technology to revolutionize the way it collects, shares and disseminates statistical data. In addition, multinational pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has said it's rolling out peer-to-peer technology so 10,000 employees and researchers outside the company can share drug data. And major investment banks such as Bear Stearns, ING Barings and J.P. Morgan also are moving into the technology.

These are systems like Napster, except with a lock and key. The outlaw music-swapping service uses a central directory to point users who want to download a file to another PC where that file is stored. The corporate version of the technology typically requires employees to store files on servers, which can be password-protected. Authorized individuals are alerted when new files are added and when they can access them.

In some cases, peer-to-peer makes the information being swapped more useful. Government statistics, for example, have until now been "dumb"; figures on everything from population growth to energy consumption, available to the public on the portal since 1995, appear as numbers on a page - not particularly helpful to anyone who needs to parse the information.

"People want the actual data that they can sort and combine with other data," says Brand Niemann, a computer scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency and one of a handful of technology gurus who are transforming the way the federal bureaucracy does its work.

Thanks to peer-to-peer technology, the government can now make statistics downloadable into spreadsheets that can be sliced and diced as needed. "We can create new documents and databases that weren't possible before," says Niemann, who is also a member of the federal government's FedStats task force.

Peer-to-peer will also make collecting data a lot easier. The U.S. government gathers statistical information in 5,000 categories from 3,000 counties across the nation, and the process is cumbersome and open to error. Local workers in the field record information on paper forms, which are sent to an agency's state office. The information is then typed into a computer and forwarded to Washington. With the technology Niemann's group is using from a company called NextPage, each agency's county representative would enter data on a handheld computer and copy the file to a local server. The data would be automatically available to everyone else on the system and to the public; every time the file is modified, everyone would see the update.

"The potential time and cost savings are enormous," notes Niemann. "And you wouldn't have an annual statistical abstract; it would be a real-time statistical abstract."

That's great for the government, but few companies compile statistical abstracts. Still, there's plenty of information stored on individual hard drives - e-mail, spreadsheets, industry reports, news items downloaded from the Web and so on - that could be shared profitably with colleagues or customers.

How can a company sort out the valuable information and get it into the right hands?

Brokerage houses generate countless reports and briefs, which they send by fax and e-mail to their clients, who use the information to weigh trades. A dozen or so major financial firms are using peer-to-peer software from a 2-year-old Boston company called WorldStreet to deliver more-targeted and timely information to customers to foster closer relationships.

Users set up profiles that tell the system what kind of information they want, whom they want it from and with whom they want to share it. For example, Bear Stearns brokers who are focused on retail stocks could choose to be alerted when a new report on Wal-Mart is stored on the system. The system would also show what other relevant information is available, which could be anything from an e-mail tip a broker added a few minutes ago to an audio file created by a researcher who visited Wal-Mart several days ago. When brokers forward the package to key clients, those clients are notified via e-mail or a wireless device.

Passing files back and forth is great, but in many cases companies want employees to work on the same documents or files collaboratively. For instance, when designing a car or airplane, engineering departments either send paper drawings via FedEx or send large electronic files back and forth. In these cases, it would be better if each person could view the same sketch at the same time and immediately see any changes made by anyone with access.

A startup software company in Beverly, Mass., is trying to serve that function. Groove Networks has been getting a lot of attention because it was founded by Ray Ozzie, the brains behind Lotus Notes, the most popular software for letting groups of employees collaborate on projects.

Of course, peer-to-peer is no corporate panacea. Many executives resist the technology for security reasons. Then there's the reaction the EPA's Niemann got when he first approached various federal agency heads about using the technology. He pitched it as a way to give people all the data and tools they'd need to compute the consumer price index themselves. That idea got a cool reaction: What if people came up with conflicting numbers?

Mark Roberti writes for The Industry Standard. Comment by clicking here.


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