Data Sharing

The keys to information interoperability

Jeffrey Edgell

Information superiority is critical to our nation's future, particularly in the realms of defense and homeland security. But beyond access to more types of information than one's adversary, that superiority also requires the ability to process that information faster and more efficiently.

America's information capital is vast. Yet technological obstacles and territorial mind-sets at agencies thwart efforts to bring to bear the full power of all the information residing in federal databases.

Information interoperability addresses the system-level obstacles that prevent information exchange. It acknowledges that independently developed systems use different formats, meanings and standards, and often contain information of varying quality and security levels.

Neutral data models and Web 2.0 technology that allows for semantic mediation are the best tools for achieving governmentwide information interoperability. They provide both a technique and a technology for sharing information where there is no need for specific knowledge about the organizations with which information will be shared.

For example, any organization can map a widget to a universal meaning within a neutral model and share it with every organization using that neutral model. When drivers and events change a widget's definition, the widget owner can remap it without affecting the ability to share accurate information among organizations in real time. Semantic concepts allow information to be combined across sources to augment meaning and sharing, thereby enhancing an organization's overall information enterprise.

Until recently, government agencies primarily used two neutral models: Universal Core and the Justice Department's National Information Exchange Model. The Defense Department's decision in October 2012 to use NIEM made it the de facto standard neutral model, paving the way for greater collaboration among law enforcement, defense and homeland security entities.

In addition to the tools, information superiority also demands a dynamic structure that can accommodate an individual organization's changes without disrupting the overall information-sharing environment. To achieve such a structure, use the following best practices:

1. Avoid single-purpose solutions. Appreciate the need for future information-sharing requirements rather than focus exclusively on the specific communication issue at hand. Embrace universal technologies in the selected solution.

2. Allow operational language autonomy. Let organizations retain their unique vernacular. Forcing conformity is costly and shortsighted.

3. Think in a global sense. Determine what information your agency owns and consider what other entities might be consumers of that information. Keeping others' requirements at the forefront promotes information superiority and allows the information enterprise to grow.

4. Identify what your organization requires. Determine what information will enhance your organization's analytical and situational awareness. Knowing what data is needed to expand your posture will influence your sharing community choices and neutral model participation.

5. Select an appropriate neutral model. Understand your business/mission as a first step, including what will be shared and what is needed to achieve organizational goals. That definition will elucidate the dimensions of the optimal neutral model. Then, map current business processes while knowing that future changes will require remapping.

6. Map to the specific elements in the neutral model. Adhere to this approach to facilitate information sharing and provide direct linkages to other organizations. Then, when another organization wants to access data, it will be mapped and translated in a way that the requesting organization can use in a language native to that organization.

7. Be mindful of security considerations. Recognize that data can be classified (and unavailable for universal consumption) and unclassified. Two key business decisions that inform neutral model design and affect cross-domain issues are: Who needs to see this information, and who do I need to share it with?

About the Author

Jeffrey Edgell is chief technologist at DHA Group, a management consulting and contracting firm serving federal civilian and defense agencies.

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