No one said it would be easy

One of the toughest challenges with the many homeland security-related information sharing and collaboration projects is getting senior managers to throw their weight behind the interagency initiatives.

A recent example of this played out in the bumpy creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center that was proposed by President Bush earlier this year. To make the center successful, the CIA and FBI had to work out differences about who should fill the top positions.

Any information technology project requires senior management buy-in, but when the project's success requires commitment from more than one organization's leadership, the job is that much harder.

That said, the technical issues are no cakewalk either. There are many ways to collaborate and share information, and project leaders must be careful not to let the abundance of choices obscure desired policy or operational objectives. Failing to fully understand the business mission for a collaborative project can divert limited resources and waste precious time, and the newly created systems may ultimately miss the mark.

For example, the point of some integration projects will be to draw information from a structured database at a given moment, such as querying a terrorist watch list while processing a visa application. The task comes down to finding the simplest and most secure way to connect system A to system B, and there are several options for doing so.

Other initiatives will try to give government analysts access to so-called unstructured data, such as memos, e-mail messages or news feeds. This involves a different set of technologies, such as those that can absorb enormous amounts of information and then provide ways to categorize it, extract relevant facts and identify possible patterns or links among them.

Still others will aim to provide platforms for collaboration, enabling employees from one agency to find and then work online — in real time — with employees from another agency, whether they are across the street or across an ocean.

There are many variations on these models and instances when projects may require elements of all three. There are also countless other challenges that will arise when designing and deploying such systems, such as security, data life cycle management and user training, to name just a few.

On the other hand, the push to build such systems is acting as a catalyst for improving government IT practices, much as the preparations for the Year 2000 date change did several years ago. One positive development is the more serious use of enterprise architectures to add greater accountability and discipline to IT management. Another is a firmer embrace of industry standards.

In the long run, those trends will help government build more effective IT systems at lower cost, and if they also help make the country safer, then it's a double win.

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