Sharing drives DHS data project

In conversations about federal data sharing, the Homeland Security Department inevitably becomes the center of discussion. DHS plays a pivotal role in the government's effort to improve the sharing of terrorism-related information among agencies. President Bush's Executive Order 13356 calls on DHS, the Justice Department and the CIA to establish information-sharing requirements, procedures and guidelines for executive branch agencies.

DHS officials are translating the responsibilities into a data architecture. The latest data reference model is an important focus for DHS this fiscal year. DHS and Justice officials announced the National Information Exchange Model initiative in February. It aims to smooth data sharing's path via Extensible Markup Language.

"It is all about using reusable components to create our XML exchange packages," said Michael Daconta, DHS' metadata program manager and leader of a working group that is refining the data reference model. The information exchange package, the basis for the model's message structure, provides a standard format for sharing data.

Daconta said the National Information Exchange Model builds on Justice's Global Justice XML Data Model (JXDM). Global JXDM is an XML standard designed for criminal justice information exchange, according to the Office of Justice Programs' Web site. The model includes a data dictionary, data model and component reuse repository. The initial operational release debuted in January 2004.

The National Information Exchange Model, however, will extend Global JXDM to other information domains, Daconta said. The initiative will also make the Justice model easier for developers to handle.

DHS and Justice officials plan to test the National Information Exchange Model. At press time, they were still evaluating possible test projects. Border security or emergency management projects could be among the test domains.

Assuming the tests are successful, DHS officials will distribute the model departmentwide. "All the other components of DHS would reuse it for their exchange packages," Daconta said.

The standardization of such exchange packages is critical to information sharing, Daconta said, adding that organizations considering a service-oriented architecture strategy might be tempted to create an XML vocabulary to solve their specific problems. "It is very easy to fragment XML vocabularies," he said, adding that although XML is a standard, it can still create stand-alone systems.

Metadata catching on

As work continues on data exchange, DHS officials are also pursuing other layers of the data reference model.

At the description layer, which includes the task of structuring data, DHS officials are selecting a metadata repository, a system that manages higher-level organizational data.

"Metadata registries and repositories are maturing and becoming much more affordable," Daconta said, adding that as repository prices have declined, choices have multiplied regarding open-source implementations and vendors.

"Metadata is gaining mainstream acceptance," he said. "Business managers realize that they want to treat data as a strategic asset." He said managers increasingly recognize that applications must revolve around the data, not the other way around. "This is a shift of Copernican magnitude."

DHS officials are also working on the data reference model's business context layer, which involves data classification. "We have several taxonomy projects under way," he said. Those projects are internally directed for the most part, but Daconta said future efforts will "help us design taxonomies in a collaborative fashion."

Taxonomies provide a content classification scheme that organizes unstructured data, such as word-processing documents, PDF files and the like, and enables capabilities such as enterprise search. Use of taxonomies is growing among agencies responding to directives such as the E-Government Act of 2002.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

DHS' checklist
  • Data exchange — Work with the Justice Department to create a National Information Exchange Model, using the Global Justice Extensible Markup Language Data Model. Homeland Security Department and Justice officials will test the model.
  • Data description — Evaluate metadata repositories. DHS officials plan to select a repository this year.
  • Business context — Pursue various taxonomy, or data classification, projects.

    Projects involving the collaborative design of taxonomies may emerge but aren’t ready for this fiscal year.

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