Time to get serious about information management
As information sharing gets more sophisticated, agencies might want to rediscover the evolving discipline of information management.
The next generation of information-sharing initiatives might push government agencies to give as much thought to the information as they usually give to the sharing.
Until recently, that has not been the case. Federal agencies typically have focused on creating systems and processes that make “sharing” happen. Data formats, such as Extensible Markup Language, have been part of that, but the data itself is usually seen as a given.
Information management experts say that needs to change. With more and more government data being made accessible to people across agency boundaries, government officials need to take a more disciplined approach to how they manage, store and prepare that data to be shared.
A group of researchers at the Center for Technology in Government (CTG), based at the University at Albany, say government agencies must learn to think in terms of an information polity.
An information polity looks at “informational relationships” between the different players involved in information-sharing initiatives. An agency that initially collects and manages the data is only one such player. Other players include the outside experts who get access to that data and put it to their own use. And then there are the organizations or individuals who are influenced by the work of those experts.
Government agencies “have got to become stewards of this information we have found ourselves in,” said Natalie Helbig, a senior program associate at CTG.
CTG’s work on an information polity has focused on the dynamics of open-government initiatives, in which information polities tend to be very complex. By contrast, traditional government information-sharing initiatives are usually quite straightforward, with a limited cast of players who have well-understood informational relationships.
But as agencies embark on initiatives in which they make data available to a broader community of users, the information polity becomes a more important consideration. Two factors, in particular, are important. First is the matter of governance.
G. Brian Burke, a senior program associate at CTG, recalls an integrated justice initiative involving a number of agencies. When the stakeholders first got together, “they just wanted to create a system,” Burke said. “They quickly realized that they lacked the appropriate governance…and had to figure out a structure they could put in place” to manage the initiative.
The other factor is contextualization. As agencies look to push information out to the public or to other organizations, they need to decide whether to put it out there as is or provide some type of visualization to help others make sense of it, Helbig said.
Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Rome, N.Y., which focuses on some of the same issues as CTG, have developed a model for what they call service-oriented information management.
The model is based on the concept of federated information spaces. An information space involves “actors” who work with the information infrastructure to produce, consume or manage data in a particular domain and to manage the sharing of data with other spaces.
Each information space includes an information catalog, which maintains metadata on the information managed in that space. The metadata might include the stored information index, taxonomies, and status information on producers and consumers.
AFRL researchers see metadata as critical. “An important factor driving the effectiveness of [information management] services is the degree to which metadata describes available information,” according to a broad agency announcement describing the approach.
The model also is supported by numerous management layers, such security, workflow and quality of service.
In the military enterprise, information management hinges on information sharing. The objective of information management “is to discover, contextualize and share quality information among producers and consumers within available resources and policy constraints,” the announcement states. “This must be accomplished across network and enclave boundaries to enable true information dominance.”