Keep it loose

Thomas R. Temin, GCN executive editor

Ever been in one of those by-the-pound candy stores with scores of colorful bins filled with every imaginable type of candy? It's not just children who become overwhelmed by the possible combinations.

In some sense, that is the problem government agencies face as they try and work through, in the name of homeland security, the issue of data sharing.

A year ago, data sharing became the catchall phrase for what agencies would have to do after they realized how much information about the Sept. 11 terrorists existed in separate places.

But as the planning for a Homeland Security Department moves ahead at the White House and on Capitol Hill, does anyone have a concrete idea of what data is supposed to be shared by whom?

The locations of data related to the Sept. 11 attacks give little guidance because terrorists likely won't repeat their patterns for a future attack. You can't look in the rearview mirror to steer around narrow, twisting roads.

Agencies will never be able to anticipate every data sharing possibility, nor will there ever be a giant data warehouse in the sky. If homeland security requires anything, it is flexibility.

Three things are needed. First, officials must understand the data they have in their own agencies and how it might relate to the bigger security picture. They must combine that understanding with a willingness to share it with someone else on the hunch it might be useful'and be open to similar input from others.

Second, agency managers must learn what they can and can't do legally when it comes to data sharing. When needs arise, they must be able to act with knowledge'even when that knowledge tells them to seek a court order.

Third, the proposed department will need a flexible technical environment. Users must be able to share data sets as needed; the framework must avoid fixed setups that outlive particular tasks.

In other words, the government must avoid the futility of trying to predict every data sharing need possible. Instead, agencies must accept that data sharing requirements will constantly shift and build systems they can tailor to the tasks at hand.

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