Study delves into info sharing

Center for Technology in Government

Even before Sept. 11, 2001, government agencies were moving toward integrating their information systems with an eye toward one-stop shopping or data sharing. Those efforts accelerated during the past two years, especially among law enforcement agencies.

Despite the energy poured into information sharing initiatives, governments are left to wonder if they really know how to implement them successfully.

With a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant, the Center for Technology in Government is embarking on a project to try to answer that question. The center, based in the University at Albany/State University of New York, will work to better understand the social and technical aspects of information integration by focusing on two New York state projects.

"One of the challenges with understanding how far we've actually gone is that integration is in the eye of the beholder," said Theresa Pardo, project director at the center. "Integration is one of those things that some people define as 'we have co-located a number of applications in a portal' vs. 'we have in fact integrated business processes in information systems across government agencies to ensure one-stop shopping.' Integration is a very, very subjective term."

While e-government is important, she said implications for homeland security are even greater "because of the kind of almost...data element by data element integration that I think is necessary to provide the kind of information that they're seeking to provide." Such integration would mean aligning disparate business processes and policies.

In the project's first phase, which will take about eight months, the center will work with New York police on one project and the state's Department of Environmental Conservation on another.

She said the study is interested in the social processes — "how do people relate to each other, how do business policies/procedures influence behavior, actions, plans" — as well as "what technical processes influence information integration [and] how do they vary across different kinds of integration initiatives."

Academic literature regarding systems or data integration is widely available and very good, she said, but there isn't much out there about how social processes and interaction with technical processes collectively influence integration efforts.

She said the center's research team would observe the two projects, talk with participating parties, and draw out themes or commonalities — "things that are consistent or surprising that seem to make a difference."

With that in mind, in the project's second phase, the team will visit six federal, state and/or local sites across the country where other integration initiatives are occurring to compare and contrast what was learned in New York.

The center will build system dynamics models to show how social and technical processes or policy and organizational decisions influence integration over time, she said. "It's about the things that are likely to change in an environment and what the consequences of those changes might be," she said.

The center will use gathered data to develop a survey about how factors influence information integration processes. It will be distributed nationally to individuals identified as "knowledgeable and experienced" in such initiatives. Pardo said the center would also produce some academic products and practical guides or planning tools that can support the efforts of government practitioners.

"We've talked for many, many years about one-stop shopping," she said. "We had those ideas about what was possible, what those might mean in terms of the user. But only, I think, in the past number of years have we begun to realize the extent of integration among all of those things. And what we've also learned is we don't know very much about how to do it."

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