Few takers for VA's search engine

'Each of us needs to look at one another and steal from one another,' the Coast Guard's Nathaniel Heiner says.

Henrik G. DeGyor

As the White House's Homeland Security Office tests data-sharing tools, agencies slated to join the proposed Homeland Security Department already have access to a commercial application for searching across databases.

So far, however, only two of the 21 agencies expected to form the new department have tried out Autonomy Inc.'s Intelligent Data Operating Layer software. At the Homeland Security Office's request, the Veterans Affairs Department recently negotiated a user license of the San Francisco company's product for the 21 agencies.

The government needs to change its attitude toward sharing data to make any system work, said Nathaniel Heiner, chief knowledge officer and deputy CIO for the Coast Guard, which is implementing the software. Agencies need policies to govern who has access to what data in which systems, he said.

Buying search software is the easy part, Heiner said. 'A tool like Autonomy's doesn't relieve you of interagency trust, policy regulations or constraints on how data can be shared.'

The State Department has been using the software for its Overseas Presence Collaboration Zone Knowledge Management System, which lets overseas offices share information.

'Each of us needs to look at one another and steal from one another,' Heiner said of the Homeland Security-bound agencies.

Fair trade acts

Such an approach, he said, would mean the Coast Guard could share its information on maritime movements with agencies such as the Customs Service, which in turn could provide data on shipping containers.

The Autonomy software processes unstructured information in text, voice and video forms,
e-mail and HTML pages and makes it available to authorized users in response to natural language queries, said John Cronin, Autonomy's vice president of the government sector.

It doesn't require agencies to tie hardware together or use homogeneous data formats, application platforms or operating systems. Each agency can have its own interface to the system as well, he said.

To use the software, an agency's network administrators must tag the data repositories that can be shared and establish rules for access.

Then, the software scans each document in the repositories, analyzes the documents and creates digital thumbprints in what Autonomy calls a Dynamic Reasoning Engine.

The spidering software does not copy the documents, which remain in their original location. The software also sets security limits that let users access only the information they are authorized to see.

The Autonomy app has an interface similar to a search engine, Cronin said. The software supports many formats and more than 65 languages.

Heiner said the Coast Guard hopes other agencies will use the software and maximize the information that agencies can search across.

Most agencies do not have a way employees can search multiple databases for one topic, he said. 'Until we start indexing, we're going to be taking wild guesses,' Heiner said.

Each agency that uses the software must pay $2 million in annual maintenance fees to cover upgrades and technical support.

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