Frictionless data: let it flow
How some agencies use data exchanges that are built on existing systems
- By Joab Jackson
- May 30, 2006
National Park Service CIO Dom Nessi said the agency is using Extensible Business Reporting Language to track contractors such as those operating around the Statue of Liberty.
For new users, preparing their systems for Global JXDM can be a snap. 'The best way is to create a Web service.'
' Paul Wormeli, Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute
Think information sharing at your agency is difficult? It took an order from the president to get intelligence agencies to start to pool their resources.
In August 2004, President George W. Bush signed into existence the National Counterterrorism Center, an informatic meeting ground for the CIA, FBI and 11 other agencies. Perhaps he was anticipating the 9/11 Commission Report, which would be issued the following month and would state, 'Action officers should have been able to draw on all available knowledge about al-Qaeda in the government. Management should have ensured that information was shared.'
Sharing. It has become one of the most pressing IT challenges in government since 2001.
'It is our job to ensure that all the agencies that have a role in the counterterrorism mission get the information they need to do their jobs,' said Wesley Wilson, chief of the NCTC Information Sharing Program Office, at a recent meeting of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association in Bethesda, Md.
Shortcomings surrounding 9/11 are emblematic of a larger trend across government: the attempt to exploit the full power of electronic data. In theory, information in electronic form is frictionless'it can be moved anywhere with little effort. The possibilities of easy reuse are tantalizing, from stopping terrorists to not requiring citizens to fill out the same information on multiple forms.
In practice, however, government officials are encountering many obstacles to making data more widely available. Some are political.
'What you'll find is that those that hold information don't feel all that strong of a need to share [it],' Wilson said. Volumes have been written on the social science of information sharing.
But technical challenges to data sharing also exist. How do you share when potential users wouldn't have the slightest idea how to interpret raw data from your database? What if external data sources you rely on are moved or updated, leaving you to re-establish a connection, which could take considerable effort?
A few federal agencies have confronted these sorts of problems head-on and some have even conquered them. As a result, they oversee thriving data exchanges that exemplify the sharing that government has strived for.Talk the talk
When it comes to sharing information, few agencies can boast of greater success than the Justice Department, with its Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative, a coalition of law enforcement agencies that oversees information-sharing projects.
One secret to its success? Creating a vocabulary of commonly used terms.
The initiative created the Global Justice XML Data Model, which comprises a data dictionary, a data model and an XML schema. More than 200 state, local and federal law enforcement agencies use the Global JXDM to share criminal justice information. The National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, a network bridging 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, uses Global JXDM to swap 50,000 criminal histories a day. Pennsylvania's Justice Network uses the framework for sharing criminal data among its 4,000 nodes.
The Global JXDM provides a vocabulary of about 3,000 terms that computer systems use to tag data. Traditionally, while a law enforcement system might use one term to describe a piece of data''manslaughter 2,' for example'a district attorney's system may use a different term ('MS-2'). The advantage of agreeing on one term is that both systems can use the same data. When a police officer makes an arrest, the information the officer captures can be electronically passed on to prosecutors and then passed again to the court system.
'No one has to re-enter that information 15 times along the way,' said Paul Wormeli, executive director of the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, a Justice-funded nonprofit that assists law enforcement agencies in implementing JXDM.Users define terms
For the Justice Department, the key to success was letting participants define the shared vocabulary, Wormeli said. The idea was not to have Justice hand the language to local law enforcement agencies, who then may or may not use it, but rather to provide a forum in which the participants could come to a common conclusion.
Although the Global JXDM covers a lot of ground, it does not cover everything. Where no suitable terms are present, participants can create their own schema subset, using what's called the Schema Subset Generation Tool to ensure results remain valid within the rest of the Global JXDM.
For new users, preparing their systems for Global JXDM can be a snap. 'The best way is to create a Web service,' Wormeli said. Many vendors offer tools to set up a Web service in front of a relational database. The next step is to alert authorized parties that the service exists, so they can access it over a network.
The Global JXDM has been so successful that Justice, along with the Homeland Security Department, is now expanding the dictionary and data model to create a governmentwide data-sharing model called the National Information Exchange Model.
The programs' leaders are hoping that other agencies use this model for sharing other types of data as well. A draft version 1.0 of the specification is scheduled for this month, with the final version to be released in the fall.Follow the money
The idea of a specialized XML-based vocabulary is also taking root in the financial community through the emerging Extensible Business Reporting Language.
Like Global JXDM, XBRL offers both a dictionary'one based on standard accounting terminology'and a taxonomy that shows how terms are connected. It's also extensible, so new users can add their own definitions for specialized terms.
'You can use XBRL to describe any sort of financial information,' said Karl Best, executive director, XBRL-US.
During this year's Interagency Resource Management Conference, Labor Department CFO Sam Mok suggested XBRL could be used by agencies to standardize financial reporting systems. Later he told GCN that the difficulty many agencies have now is that they cannot share financial data, even if the data they have is generated by software packages from the same company. XBRL offers a common, standards-based lingua franca to exchange data across different systems.
'I believe there's a much broader use, if it is properly applied,' Mok said.
Agencies with explicit financial missions are already migrating to the standard. The Securities and Exchange Commission offered private companies incentives to use XBRL for their SEC filings and mutual fund disclosures in order to help the agency more quickly analyze input from many different companies.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. uses XBRL for its call reports from nearly 8,400 banks and financial institutions. These are huge reports, with thousands of data fields and formulas. XBRL simplifies the process of data aggregation.
But XBRL has wider application. The National Park Service is piloting XBRL for its Concession Data Management System, said Dom Nessi, chief information officer for the NPS. The agency manages 633 contracts throughout the country's parks, ranging from vendors who shuttle visitors to the Statue of Liberty to those who handle the lodges at Yellowstone National Park.
Working with consultants at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP of New York, NPS developed an XBRL-based contract-oversight module and is in the process of automating its annual financial reporting process. Companies submitting data to NPS must submit XBRL-tagged data.
'By using XBRL, we allow the source data to flow into our application seamlessly,' Nessi said. 'And from there, the data can be transported seamlessly into other applications.'
Although Global JXDM and XBRL operate in totally different domains of expertise, they share one common trait. Both approaches advocate keeping existing systems rather than replacing them with a unified supersystem. To share information, these initiatives require putting gateways in front of a system in order to translate the data from its native format to one shared by others. Establishing this common platform through translation frees users from dependence on any specific technology.
This loose-coupling approach, as it's sometime referred to, was part of the success behind the Environmental Protection Agency's Exchange Network, said Kim Nelson, former CIO at EPA and executive director of e-government for Microsoft Federal.
Nelson oversaw the development of the Exchange Network.
Operational since 2003, the Exchange Network works as a data repository, collecting environmental information that can be used by more than 40 state, local and tribal agencies that deal in environmental issues.
The idea behind Exchange Network 'was to create a seamless interface between EPA and the states for sharing information,' Nelson said. 'At the root of it was the notion that there should be one primary steward of the data. If you keep the data close to the original source, your chances of it being accurate are much better.'
With the Exchange Network, each participating organization is responsible for its own information. Instead of compiling data into a monolithic repository, which EPA has historically done, each participant maintains its own data and offers access through predefined protocols.
'We're trying to replace the need for them to run our systems,' said Andrew Battin, deputy director of the office of EPA's information collection, which oversees the network.
The loose-coupling approach also means that when a participating agency upgrades a system that provides data'moving to a new database, for instance'consumers of that data do not have to change their own query systems. All the formats for fetching the data are defined through the Exchange. Each participating agency agrees that any new software meets the formats specified.
'This has a lot of look and feel of a net-centric data approach,' Battin said.
Whether it's Global JXDM, XBRL or the EPA's Exchange Network, all these projects have demonstrated that data sharing is far from the insurmountable challenge it's sometimes depicted to be. In fact, once problems such as vocabularies, language and architectural issues are addressed, sharing data can bring about new capabilities and efficiencies not even thought of before.
But even the parties involved will tell you these successes are just the tip of the iceberg. As NPS' Nessi put it, 'We're embarking on new ground right now.'