Justice program emerges as info sharing model

The National Information Exchange Model is being adopted in a number of fields beyond the justice community, including intelligence, health care and infrastructure protection.

When people talk about government successes in information sharing, they inevitably come around to the National Information Exchange Model.

NIEM is a seven-year old initiative that provides a platform-independent approach to enabling agencies to exchange data across agency boundaries. The program, originally funded by the Justice Department, began as a way to improve the flow of information among federal, state and local law enforcement-related agencies.

But NIEM is now making its presence felt in other fields, including health, cybersecurity and intelligence. And its horizons are still expanding. The NIEM Unified Modeling Language (UML), an approach to modeling information exchanges, is now being considered for adoption as an industry standard by the Object Management Group.

Beyond the technical success of the program in specific fields, NIEM is now recognized as a model for how government agencies at all levels might approach information sharing.

“NIEM makes it possible for organizations at several different levels and jurisdictions to share critical data, empowering individuals to make informed decisions that improve efficiency and help advance mission goals,” said Donna Roy, executive director of the NIEM program, speaking to a congressional panel in April. “In my opinion, NIEM is an example of government collaboration at its best.”

Roy also is executive director of the Information Sharing Environment within the Homeland Security Department.

Collaboration is essential to NIEM. The model makes it possible for a community of users to work together toward a standard information solution, rather than starting each initiative from scratch.

With NIEM, “government agencies are seeing there is a value in joining up and not going alone,” said Eric Sweden, program director for enterprise architecture and governance at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

With the on-going budget crunch, IT officials are drawn to the idea of working with a proven model that does not require big investments in IT, Sweden said. In 2011, NASCIO recommended that states adopt NIEM as an approach to information sharing.

Experts attribute much of the program’s success in part to its relative simplicity. In developing NIEM, justice officials wanted to provide a means for sharing law enforcement-related information across jurisdictional boundaries. But rather than approach it as a systems integration problem, they started by focusing on the data.

NIEM provides a framework for working with stakeholders within a given field to agree on a common vocabulary for describing the data that they need to share. Because it focuses on the data format, rather than the underlying systems used to exchange data, NIEM does not require users to buy new technology. The early work on NIEM ultimately led to the development of the Global Justice XML Data Model.

But it’s not just about the data. The program also created NIEM UML, which helps organizations understand how to set up NIEM information exchanges. The program also provides a support framework, helping communities develop tools and training programs to help stakeholders put information sharing projects on a good footing for long-term success.

The benefits of NIEM can be seen in on-going efforts to prevent the abuse of prescription drugs. Many states have prescription monitoring programs in place, but such programs traditionally do not extend beyond a given state’s boundaries – a loophole that some patients know how to exploit.

“This effort represents a significant success for NIEM for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly it connects practitioners across the health, regulatory and law enforcement communities to address common challenges,” Roy said.

DHS also is putting NIEM to work internally, using the model to help unify its far-flung operations, said agency CIO Richard Spires, speaking at a May 11 meeting of the Northern Virginia chapter of AFCEA.


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