Reports from the IT horizon

by / March 3, 2001

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Researchers are studying a new application of GPS that could raise big bucks for states and local jurisdictions.

The idea is to track the driving habits of commercial and personal vehicles via GPS, said David Forkenbrock, director of the Public Policy Center of the University of Iowa and principal investigator of the study.

"I designed the system based on the concern that a lot of people have over the inability of the motor fuel tax to supply the revenue necessary to support the road system in the long run," Forkenbrock said, adding that the revenue will shrink as alternative fuels, high-mileage vehicles and fuel-cell vehicles catch on.

The research is examining the feasibility of replacing the motor fuel tax across the country, which would cause the price of fuel at the pump to drop by 40 cents per gallon, he said, adding that the 40 cents is a combination of federal and state taxes.

"If youre going to replace the gas tax, why not design a system that allows you to do a number of things that youd like to do anyway, such as charge vehicles according to how much damage they do to the roads or encouraging people to travel on roads that can handle the traffic?"

The policy implications for local governments are tremendous, he said, because using GPS in this manner would allow local governments to charge vehicles extra for traveling along neighborhood routes to avoid arterial traffic, thus minimizing the amount of travel along those smaller routes.

A potential complication is getting the GPS capabilities into vehicles, especially the older vehicles. Forkenbrock said hes fairly confident that, in time, pretty much all vehicles will be outfitted with GPS while theyre being assembled.


Laser gunLAKESIDE, Calif. -- The days of shooting bad guys with lasers may not be that far off. A San Diego-based research company, HSV Technologies Inc., is working on a nonlethal laser that immobilizes a person by causing the skeletal muscles to lock up.

The weapon, known as either the "Non-Lethal Tetanizing Beam Weapon" or the "Anti-Personnel Beam Weapon," uses UV radiation to create a path in the air that allows an electrical current to be conducted to the target.

The current is a replica of the neuro-electric impulses that control skeletal muscles and, essentially, jacks up the normal twitches of the muscles to a rate that tetanizes, or freezes, the muscle tissue into a single, sustained contraction.

Currently, the weapon is the size of a suitcase, although the company expects advances in laser technology to reduce the size to something that would fit in a persons hand within two years, said Eric Herr, vice president of HSV.

The effects of the device last only a few seconds, and the effective range of the weapon is approximately 100 meters, Herr said.

As promising as this weapon sounds, Herr said the companys patent on a nonlethal, engine-disabling weapon using similar technology is what has law enforcement officials excited.


PhotosWASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the old days, if city officials wanted to know what sorts of pipes and conduits were underground, they had to consult paper records.

Now, technology is making it possible to create a complete 3D picture of what lies beneath the grounds surface. A Washington, D.C.-based company, Witten Technologies, is using computer-assisted radar tomography (CART) to create maps of the maze of piping and other manmade materials underground.

The technology has a variety of uses, said Warren Getler, the companys executive vice president of business development.

The company is working with state transportation agencies to analyze the strength of pavement; state environmental agencies to analyze brownfields to determine if toxic materials are stored underground; and airports to determine the strength of runway tarmac.

Local governments that need to know whats under their streets could also make use of the companys services.

"We think theres going to be a large demand for this system because so much turmoil has been created in small town s and cities by the laying of broadband cable," Getler said.

Depending on soil conditions, CART can see up to 10 feet underground -- and up to 20 feet if the soil is particularly sandy.

The research behind this commercial application of CART was originally sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which was established in 1973 as a center for public interest energy and environmental research.

Four years ago, EPRI was told by several of its members of problems with accidentally cutting water lines, gas lines, power lines and communications cables, said Ralph Bernstein, a technical leader at EPRI and project manager of the CART research.

EPRI then instituted a four-phase research project designed to analyze how data from technologies, such as ground-penetrating radar, could be transformed into three-dimensional maps of the hazards below ground.

Pictures provided by Witten Technologies.


SealandSEALAND -- Talk about a security complex. HavenCo has set up shop in Sealand to offer what its billing as the worlds first "real data haven."

According to Sealands official Web site, Sealand is a sovereign principality founded in 1967 in international waters, six miles off the eastern shores of Britain.

"We see ourselves as a common carrier, much like the telephone company or department of roads," said Sean Hastings, CEO of HavenCo, noting that pretty much anything goes as far as what can be offered from HavenCos collocation facility. "Our acceptable use policy currently prohibits launching electronic attacks from our network, spam and child pornography. Beyond those actions, a client cannot be deemed as doing anything illegal as far as HavenCo or the government of Sealand are concerned."

Hastings said HavenCo had just attained a level of connectivity to start hosting customers, and the company would be hand selecting between one and two dozen clients to beta test its operations through February. After that initial test, HavenCo was to have been open to the general public. Although HavenCo could potentially offer legally protected hosting services to companies wishing to offer, say, online gambling, the long arm of the law can still reach out to snuff out certain activities.

"We cannot necessarily protect a U.S. citizen or corporation that breaks U.S. law simply because their server is located outside of the United States, or any other country," said Hastings. "It is up to our clients to ensure that they are not breaking any laws of their native country or jurisdiction of incorporation. It is possible that a site may be illegal for U.S. citizens to operate but legal in Sealand. U.S. authorities could investigate and file any number of lawsuits if the site is linked to an identifiable U.S. person or organization."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of HavenCo is just who might use the companys services.

"Several nonprofit organizations that want to allow free speech in some of the more restrictive countries are also setting up servers to allow activists to exchange messages that cannot be intercepted by local governments," Hastings said.


MARINA DEL REY, Calif. -- An eight-member team of researchers at the University of Southern Californias Information Sciences Institute is hard at work on its "Electronic Elves" project.

The elves, all named Friday, handle scheduling, meeting planning and ordering lunches or breakfasts for the meetings of the project team, said Milind Tambe, a research associate professor of computer science at USC and leader of the research project.

Tambe describes the elves as "software agents," noting that their level of autonomy can be programmed and they can learn over time.

"They have goal directedness; theyre trying to satisfy the goals set for them," Tambe said. "They plan their own activities to figure out how to accomplish those goals we set for them, and theyre learning from observations about me."

While the propensity for the elves to learn sets them apart, that very ability has caused some problems. Tambes agent noticed that Tambe tended to cancel meetings if he was running more than 10 minutes late.

One day, Tambe said, he had a meeting scheduled with his director to go over the projects funding, and he was running late. His Friday decided to send out, via e-mail, a cancellation notice because Tambe was a little behind. Catastrophe was averted when a project assistant was notified of the cancellation, and Friday got a slight adjustment in its priorities.

Tambe predicts that state and local governments could find several uses for the elves, noting that emergency-response planning is one area where his elves could help.

"In the case of an earthquake, you may need certain teams of police and fire personnel brought together quickly in an area to rescue survivors," he said. "Electric elves could be really useful in these situations. One could imagine a rescue helicopter being represented by an agent or a fire engine being represented by an agent, and the agents could all negotiate and quickly bring a team together."

Tambe said this might allow governments to respond more quickly than traditional operations planned from a central command center.


SAN FRANCISCO -- Distributed computing may do more than help the University of California, Berkeley, find extraterrestrial intelligence.

Berkeleys SETI@home project is perhaps the most popular example of distributed computing. The project makes use of more than two million PCs downtime to download and analyze radio telescope data.

A new company out of San Francisco, Popular Power, is turning to distributed computing to solve other problems. The company is wooing PC users to either "sell" or donate their PCs downtime to help researchers.

Popular Powers first project is a nonprofit research application that uses the power of distributed computing to help scientists model how the influenza virus responds to different vaccines. Popular Power provides scientists with sufficient distributed-computing power to run complex models of the flu virus in the hope of developing stronger vaccines.

Distributed computing has become a very popular thing for people to do, said Nelson Minar, CTO and co-founder of Popular Power, noting the attraction of SETI@home.

"The thing thats exciting about what were doing is that were working on projects that are really of direct social relevance to people," he said. "Our flagship project is this influenza research, and the flu is really important -- it kills 40,000 or 50,000 people per year in the United States alone. People respond very well to thinking their computers can be used to help solve major problems."

Minar sees potential for government use of distributed computing because of the potentially limitless computing power that can be derived, noting that government uses could include research areas such as economic modeling or traffic planning.

"Planning road lay outs is a hard problem," he said, adding that researchers hoping to build accurate traffic models are limited by how much computing power is available to them. "You would really like to be able to simulate every individual car on a given day, and were just on the cusp of where thats realistic to do."

Modeling how water is being used is another type of project that lends itself to distributed computing, Minar said.


Mayor MailBALTIMORE -- Last August, Mayor Martin OMalley grew frustrated with sometimes-spotty City Hall coverage in the local newspaper, deciding there had to be a way to inform Baltimore residents of what city government was up to.

The mayor hit on the "Neighborhood News Flash," a weekly e-mail newsletter initially sent out to approximately 400 community groups in the city. Now, about 500 community groups receive the newsletter, said Steve Kearney, the mayors director of research and communication.

The Neighborhood News Flash contains articles and stories that tell city residents of new developments within City Hall, inform them of training availabilities for community activists or pass along other useful information.

"Its a combination of reporting on what the mayors priorities are, what progress is being made toward those priorities, as well as giving people information that they can use to help them function in their jobs as neighborhood leaders," Kearney said, adding that the news flashes also contain links to city Web pages or newspaper stories related to particular issues.

"Most people feel somewhat disconnected from their government," Kearney said. "This is a way that they can get information that they might not have known about. People dont find out after the fact anymore, and it keeps them updated on issues. City government does have an obligation to draw peoples interest into what city government does."


PARIS -- The French government quietly passed a law in January mandating all medium-sized and large companies to file their company tax returns electronically for fiscal year 2002/3 and beyond.

As a result, ASP-One has been contracted by the Order of Chartered Accountants to create a major Web portal, with attendant back office operations, to handle French company filings.

Alan Herbach, a spokesperson for ASP-One, which is owned by Frances Prolog Corp., said the ordinance requires French companies with an annual turnover greater than $15.24 million euros ($13.1 million) to file their tax returns electronically.

The portal will also be capable of handling payroll submissions to the French tax authorities, simplifying procedures for medium to large French companies and giving them an incentive to use the Web over standard filing services.

The response to the French move will be watched with interest by other governments within the European Union.

In the UK, the tax office has only recently started allowing tax returns to be filed via the Web, citing worries about security as a delaying factor.

Elsewhere in Europe, the security issue seems to be holding back other governments from going down the e-filing route, as seen in the United States. -- Newsbytes