Collaboration takes new forms

The new priorities of homeland security are transforming traditional approaches to government collaboration and information sharing. Before, those who used the typical tools of the trade — data mining, knowledge management and messaging systems — could afford the luxury of predictability, knowing well beforehand what people, agencies and data needed to be part of a project. Project deadlines were often self-imposed, with goals matched to resources and expectations.

Such luxuries cannot be counted on anymore. Now scenarios can flash up involving unforeseen threats in which multiple agencies might be called upon to cooperate with little or no warning.

Fortunately, a crop of new products is emerging, along with some timely improvements to traditional tools — all designed to support evolving agency missions in this new, dynamic environment.

Hardly of a one-size-fits-all nature, these tools are as varied as the ways that agencies collaborate and the information they share.

Among the new solutions are Web portals housing sophisticated collaboration centers, which can be used by thousands of users to view and post content culled from multiple agency systems while communicating in real time via instant messaging. There also are online collaboration tools that allow agencies to seamlessly link multiple local, state and federal subject-area experts when a potential threat is identified.

Business intelligence systems are being used not only for traditional querying and reporting of massive data stores, but also to provide "dashboard" views of other systems that monitor potential security threats. Indeed, many of the most valuable new functions will be built by linking resources that already exist.

"You don't necessarily have to create entirely new systems, [rather] you have to understand the legacy systems that are available and see if they can be enhanced and developed to meet current needs," said Kathleen Kiernan, assistant director of the Office of Liaison and Public

Information at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and

Explosives and chairwoman of the Law Enforcement Working Group.

"It's [also] about looking at what works in different disciplines that may not have been made accessible to other disciplines," she said.

For example, when members of the intelligence community recently began sharing geospatial intelligence with the Boston Police Department to plan for disaster mitigation and evacuation, the local police enhanced the data mapping process by asking that input from veterinary clinics be added — a crucial element because animals often get sick before people, Kiernan said.

Portals to Everywhere

Because they can provide secure, scalable, Web-based access to content from multiple agencies, portals are being heavily relied on to provide real-time data and to connect government workers, especially those charged with first responder duties or other first-line defense missions such as monitoring border traffic.

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, for example, is preparing for the full-scale deployment of its Automated Commercial Environment secure data portal in June. The portal will allow multiple agencies to share details about ocean, land and air traffic that needs to be monitored in transit, before crossing the U.S. border.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which monitors the licensing of cargo-truck drivers, could notify Customs via the portal that a truck attempting to enter the United States from Canada may need to be sent to a secondary location for further inspection, said Charles Armstrong, executive director of the Customs and Border Protection Modernization Office. Customs also will be feeding information to the portal from wireless transponders and Global Positioning System units, which are attached to cargo containers to monitor if they are tampered with en route.

The portal "provides real-time access to the supply chain data we have," Armstrong said. "We sat down with these agencies to help figure out what their requirements were in terms of data we were planning to collect and what they need to see. We've culled that into our architecture to show the broad data-sharing approach."

In addition, Customs has developed memoranda of understanding with the various agencies, detailing the rules for data sharing, including the oversight of user access rights.

"We would assign to them an administrative ID [and] then they would administer any users that would be allowed to access the system on their behalf," Armstrong said.

The Homeland Security Department's Federal Emergency Management Agency also is using portal and collaboration technology to allow more than 4 million first responders to

instantly communicate so they can plan disaster-response


For this, FEMA chose Appian Corp.'s portal technology because of its scalability, the potential to provide responders with personalized collaboration centers and the ability to decentralize the administration of each agency's content to overcome agencies' traditional reluctance to share data, said Bob Coxe, program executive officer for FEMA's e-government initiatives.

FEMA has incorporated an enterprisewide instant messaging platform into the portal to provide real-time text communication. It allows users to see who is online at a given time and delivers proactive notification about time-sensitive events to enable first responders to better coordinate local, state and federal emergency services.

The portal, which went live in November, is divided into communities, with administrators from individual agencies controlling their own content. Each administrator also dictates who can access specific documents and who can join "knowledge centers" that are developed to allow users to collaborate via threaded discussions.

"Once they learned that they have the ability to control the content themselves, it breaks down a lot of the resistance barriers," Coxe said. "You can't scale it at the size we are going to if you want to play control games."

FEMA officials are using enterprisewide instant messaging technology from Washington, D.C.-based Bantu Inc. that can operate as a stand-alone, secure messaging platform or be integrated into other third-party applications, said Larry Schlang, Bantu's president and chief executive officer.

"We have the ability to tie into any back-end system that is monitoring any kind of events or changing conditions and, where there is a need, to notify the specific people who are responsible for that condition," Schlang said. "So, the back-end system tracking some kind of chemical threat can


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