February 13, 2006

Grants.gov won’t be platform-agnostic

Yesterday I posted about a Washington Post article that was highly critical of Grants.gov’s inability to provide e‑forms for the Mac platform. One comment on that post really set me thinking. Claus Wilkes noted that while a Mac e‑forms client would help, the best solution would be a platform-agnostic solution. My response to Claus:

There won’t be a platform-agnostic version as long as Grants.gov
uses e‑forms technology. This is for two reasons. First, I don’t know
of a single e‑forms vendor that (a) has implementations of their
product for every platform imaginable, (b) could guarantee that all
those platforms could utilize the same form structures, and © could
provide tools to make it affordable to produce multiple
platform-specific flavors of forms for every kind of form used by
Grants.gov.
 

What’s more, Grants.gov has no interest in hosting grantee’s data.
The RFI notes that “The forms should not require the user to be
connected to the Internet in order to be completed.” Having off-line
access to the forms is very important — not every grant applicant has
reliable Internet access.

So we’re left with Grants.gov trying to please as many people as
possible, given the constraints of the mission and the technologies
available. The FastLane model was rejected early on in the Grants.gov
conceptual design. Maybe it will come back as complimentary service to
the e‑forms…but I don’t see it happening soon.

The research community is right to be panicked about this because it’s
a very real, very serious problem. The needs of the loudest voices in
the FDP (MIT, Harvard, etc.), who can afford to invest heavily in IT,
have been largely met by Grants.gov through the system-to-system
interface. (That said, those folks also have their own complaints.) At the same time, Grants.gov looked at the population of the US
as a whole — the entire pool of potential grant applicants — and
created a solution that works for 90% of them.  Unfortunately that’s
also meant missing the needs of the 10% Mac/Linux/Unix users who also
constitute around 33% of the research community.

Grants.gov isn’t going to have a FastLane-like capability as its
primary interface because that would ignore those who can’t get
reliable, cheap Internet access and must work offline a lot of the
time.

So I think The Post article was unfair in this respect. It describes a
very serious problem but does nothing to address this other half of the
discussion — which is equally serious, and which Grants.gov has done a
reasonable job of addressing.

2 responses to “Grants.gov won’t be platform-agnostic

  1. “Grants.gov isn’t going to have a FastLane-like capability as its primary interface because that would ignore those who can’t get reliable, cheap Internet access and must work offline a lot of the time.”
    Who are these people and why should the federal government be providing them tax dollars to run programs? Let’s face it, if grantees can’t access the internet, then how reliable are their financial status reports, budgets, program information?
    We provide grant management solutions for state governments across the country and have found that even in the most remote locations grantees manage to access the internet. Limited access may have been the case 5 years ago, but today — every local library, gas station, convenience store and school has internet access. Heck, almost every coffee shop has wireless access.
    If a thin client solution is good enough (turbo tax) to collect government revenue, thin client (web based) solutions should be the method of distributing back to grantees.

  2. I think it’s important to remember that broadband access is still only approaching commodity status. It’s not as expensive as it once was but it’s still not used by the majority of the population. So relying on a thin client solution alone would have been a very bad move, IMO.
    The e‑File program (the IRS program that allows people to file online and electronically) uses a variety of mechanisms to achieve its aims — desktop software, web application, etc. — but also maintains the paper option for those that want or need it. Grants.gov should probably have been influenced more by it than it was, I agree.

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