D.C. hops on the bus

Enterprise service bus helps city agencies share data

Enterprise service bus

Challenge: The city of Washington, D.C., has 63 agencies, many of which have their own applications and back-end data sources. In an effort to provide workers with more information to do their jobs, the city needed a way to expose the data sources so they could be used more widely

Solution: The city launched a program called DCStat and deployed an enterprise service bus from Sonic Software Corp. of Bedford, Mass. An ESB acts as a broker among data sources and the people and programs that need the data. Instead of establishing a tangle of point-to-point connections, data requests are made to the ESB software itself, which keeps a list of all data sources. To consolidate frequently used data sources, the city also built nine data marts using software from SeeBeyond Technology Corp. (recently acquired by Sun Microsystems Inc.).

Mission Benefit: Agency workers and citizens have a greater range of data at their disposal. Housing inspectors, for instance, know better which locations to visit, given the additional sources of information.

Lessons Learned: Once individual sources of data are pooled, IT groups must work to ensure the context and origin of the data is identified, said Dan Thomas, program manager for the DCStat project. One way to do this is to assign name spaces, or prefixes of data elements, that identify the origin of the data. Metadata is another important element because it can identify factors such as how long data can be used before it should be refreshed. D.C. is building an informational model that reconciles the different sources of data. Thomas also saw the benefit of using a services-oriented architecture. In this approach, the city looks for applications that can be used by other agencies. The IT departments then expose those software functions so they can be accessed over the network. 'With SOA, you are liberating the data from the systems that have always been the gatekeepers,' Thomas said.

We found we were leaving millions of dollars on the table because we were improperly taxing those properties.'

'Adam Rubinson, Deputy CTO

Rick Steele

In the District of Columbia, a move toward greater data sharing was spawned by a tragic event: the gang-related murder of a 14-year-old girl in her own home.

For city officials, the 2004 killing was the final embarrassment in a long series of violent acts in Washington. They needed to lower crime rates fast, so they started an initiative that would help employees focus on some of the hardest-hit areas of the city. And fighting crime meant more than putting extra police on the beat'it also meant improving basic services such as fixing street lamps and hauling away trash.

For this initiative, D.C.'s Office of the CTO set out to coordinate the data and activities of more than 20 local agencies. The resulting project, dubbed DCStat, would offer a way for city workers to grab data from back-end systems no matter where they were. According to Dan Thomas, director of DCStat, the system would also allow city agencies to pass data more efficiently from one to another, under the assumption that with more data, agency workers could do their jobs more efficiently.

'A lot of residents were really annoyed at the time it took to get permits and licenses through the system,' said Adam Rubinson, deputy chief technology officer for D.C. and one of the originators of DCStat. Yet without access to the records showing where the city was falling behind, they didn't know which areas to target for immediate improvement.

But setting up the point-to-point connections between users and relevant databases was a daunting task. D.C. had 370 applications and associated data sources that DCStat could make use of, said Suzanne Peck, the city's chief technology officer. Bandwidth was no problem; the city had a 4-Gpbs, fiber-optic-based wide area network in place. But matching the right people (or programs) to the right data sources would require considerable work.

The solution, at least in part, was to use an enterprise service bus. An ESB is server-based software that acts as a central hub to coordinate traffic among many end points. D.C. adopted the Sonic Enterprise Service Bus from Sonic Software Corp. of Bedford, Mass.

Brokering among data marts

An ESB lets the city open a number of data sources to network access. The Sonic Enterprise Service Bus keeps track of the protocols used to work with these data marts and legacy databases. The ESB acts like a broker between two parties. And for the administrator, the ESB provides a way to visually model the interaction between a number of services, said Dave Chappell, vice president and chief technology evangelist for Sonic.

D.C. is now able to present the same data to multiple audiences and allow access to it from multiple locations. Using middleware from SeeBeyond Technology Corp. of Monrovia, Calif., the city set up nine data marts for frequently used data and focused subject matter areas such as enforcement, public safety and finance.

When housing inspectors are out on the road, they can use wireless devices to see who owns a building at a particular address, or whether it has been declared vacant. Previously, getting that information would have required a trip back to the office.

In addition to better access, the new system allows data to be tweaked for multiple audiences.

Sharing data also gives city workers more insight into their jobs. In one case, the city has a system that keeps data on vacant properties and another for generating property taxes. The city wants to tax vacant properties at a higher rate, but before the DCStat program, the two systems didn't work with one another.

'We found we were leaving millions of dollars on the table because we were improperly taxing those properties,' Rubinson said. With the new system in place, the two data sources can be reconciled.

In most installations, an ESB enables the sharing of services as well as disparate data. A service is a piece of an application's functionality exposed to other parties so they can use it on a network, usually with Web services-based standards. The practice of using an ESB to share data, as D.C. is doing, has only recently gained popularity, said Gordon Van Huizen, vice president of Sonic.

'A few years ago, more and more [organizations] started using ESBs for data-sharing purposes,' he said. Federal customers in particular have used this approach to unlock older databases.

But DCStat has also started to exploit its ESB's ability to handle services. It is ramping up on a number of services available to the city. For instance, the agency runs an enterprise search service based on software from Fast Search and Transfer ASA of Oslo, Norway. Thanks to the ESB, the search service can accept, via automated service requests, pointers to material that need to be indexed, as well as queries from other programs.

'When you get services to speak with one another, you're going to a whole new level of capability,' Thomas said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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