State group pushes for broad information sharing

INDIANAPOLIS—A national initiative to enable government criminal justice organizations to share information electronically eventually could lead to a national "information architecture" available to agencies across all fields and at all levels of government, according to top state officials.

The National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE), which represents the top information technology executives in state government, began developing the strategy this year after receiving a grant from the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs.

The strategy calls for organizations in the criminal justice arena to begin working out specifications for sharing information based largely on existing and emerging Internet standards.

Under the initiative, these organizations—including state and local police departments, courts and federal law enforcement agencies—will work together to define standard formats for specific criminal justice documents, such as police incident reports, arrest reports and court schedules.

The initiative aims to provide criminal justice officials with quicker access to information stored throughout federal, state and local governments.

But the basic principles of the initiative will support information sharing in any field, according to members of NASIRE's Information Architecture Committee, which is heading up the initiative.

"Never in the formative stages of this program was it intended we would keep this justice-focused," said Gerry Wethington, director of the information systems division of Missouri's State Highway Patrol. "We are talking about giving our CIOs the ability to take an architecture and move it across the disciplines they have responsibility for."

Key standards identified by the committee include the TCP/IP networking standard, Extensible Markup Language, or XML, which defines standard formats for Internet-based transactions, and the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, which provides a means of defining what information or services individual users can access.

The committee specifically is developing a strategy that will be able to support information sharing on a "very, very large scale," said Bob Marx, a senior system specialist for the committee.

Marx said the committee also is developing a strategy that will be relatively easy to undertake. In the past, many such initiatives have been "big ideas" that never got off the ground. "In many cases they are simply too complex: They have too many pieces that have to fit together perfectly, and it became apparent that just it isn't going to happen," he said.

This initiative, in contrast, relies on existing standards to define information exchanges, as well as the definition of individual document and data formats. The goal is to develop a common language or "transfer syntax" for use in exchanging information.

Once in place, users in different agencies and at different levels of government will be able to submit a request for certain of information, such as an arrest record, and have that request be understood by systems used by other agencies or at other levels of government.

"There is not very much complexity...[just] tedious, methodical detailed system and data analysis—things we know how to do and just avoid doing because they are boring," Marx said.

NASIRE's executive committee approved the strategy this month and will send it out to its members next month, with plans to finalize the strategy by the end of the year.

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