Conceptually, the NII is like a giant electronic web that will allow each user's computer, telephone, and television to interconnect with others, regardless of their location or the distance between them, and will enable each user to communicate with everyone else who is connected to the web. Over this network, public and private information sources and data processing utilities will be able to transmit, store, process, and display information in many forms (such as data, voice, and images) and provide information retrieval and processing services on demand, as if connected in the next room.
Technically, the NII is the logical convergence of computer hardware, software, and networking technologies made possible by the increasing digitization of text, sound and images. The basic technologies underpinning the NII include very high speed computers and communications; software tools that help users navigate among the huge array of services available on the computer systems connected by the network; and information appliances, such as telephones, televisions, and multimedia workstations that allow users to access the network. Many of these technologies are being developed under the auspices of the federal interagency High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC) program (5). Information generated through the various appliances -- whether it relates to patients, restaurants, or water sample data -- is all the same when converted to digital bits for transmission, switching, and processing.
NII technology has great potential for meeting the information needs of population-based public health. The rapid, transparent connectivity of the NII is well suited to facilitate the communication of data, voice, or high-resolution visual images. This not only can improve the speed, reliability and efficiency of keeping people informed, it can also facilitate collaborative management, and support such activities as long-distance learning.
The NII can also provide the necessary infrastructure to develop integrated databases, support analyses of these data, and make better use of data. As a gateway, the NII enables a computer in one location, with the appropriate authorization, to query information collected by others, vastly increasing the range of knowledge readily available at a given location. If all of the systems involved in the network collect data using a common vocabulary, aggregating data collected for different purposes becomes practical, and the burden of recoding and resubmitting similar information to fulfill additional requirements is reduced.
As geography and communications are removed as barriers, it is thought that the NII will function as a global marketplace to encourage the development and dissemination of a wide variety of affordable information processing services. Some of these services will be image enhancement, data manipulation, and analytic tools. Others will facilitate guided interactions with knowledge bases, through such mechanisms as interactive retrieval and expert systems. While it is clear that the NII has great potential to support data collection and analysis, communication, and decision support for public health, effective use of the technology will be dependent on multiple factors, including the availability of information; uniform standards for data elements and electronic transmission; tailored software that allows users to obtain access to and manipulate health information; policies to protect the privacy and security of information; and a well-trained workforce to create the information, develop applications, construct facilities, and train others to benefit from its potential.