Cops get info-sharing portal for debate

2004 Presidential Debate at Washington University in St. Louis

While President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) square off in their second debate tonight in St. Louis, more than two dozen federal, state and local law enforcement and emergency agencies will exchange information about security measures via a customized Web portal.

The system, dubbed E-Sponder, was developed by St. Louis-based Convergence Communications. It uses Microsoft Corp.'s SharePoint Portal Server collaboration software, which permits users from the 25 federal, state and local agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service, to share documents and other information in real time.

The agencies usually operate on different systems, and it is difficult to find common denominators among them, said Robert Wolf, president of Convergence Communications. E-Sponder gives users the flexibility to customize the portal on the fly based on user needs, he said.

"SharePoint became...the glue," Wolf said. "It's the one system that all of the users in the room use to access and gain information."

Missouri's homeland security department originally contracted with Wolf's company to build such a portal for deployment in the state's nine homeland security-designated regions by Nov. 1.

For the debate, the system was activated Oct. 6 at the command center at Washington University, where the debate is being held. The system will stay operational until tomorrow. Although it can support e-mail, instant messaging and wireless integration, most of those functions will be turned off or limited during the debate for security reasons, Wolf said. However, images and video from surveillance cameras around the building will be available to users through the system.

Connectivity to the Internet was also shut off for security purposes, he added. So the local area network-specific system is basically functioning as an intranet. Users will have access to 25 hardwired workstations at the university.

The system relies on Microsoft's InfoPath application, which allows users to build forms using Extensible Markup Language. Each of the agencies was given an InfoPath form to fill out for their organization, Wolf said. When the system was available via the Internet live during the planning stages, agencies could transmit their information.

"So if police officer X, Y or Z is supposed to show up on this corner and shut down this street at this time, that was all done in InfoPath," Wolf said. "We basically bring that information via the Internet so the one common denominator that all the agencies needed to have was [Microsoft's] Internet Explorer, InfoPath and an Internet connection. And based on that, we linked all 25 agencies together."

Instead of top-level representatives at the command center getting handwritten notes or being told verbally about events or potential situations — such as a dumpster fire, suspicious behavior or traffic stop — emergency dispatchers in the facility can communicate via radios and send information about an event using a central form that can be tracked until the event is resolved.

Commanders can view the information on boards projected on the walls. Users can view only the information they're allowed to access based on their clearance levels, Wolf added.

The system will archive the information so agencies can review it for after-action reporting. "Every line item, every change is tracked by user name and time stamp. That was one of the critical requirements early on," Wolf said.

Tom Richey, Microsoft's director of public-sector homeland security, said E-Sponder allows agencies to create a virtual emergency operational center that not only provides a huge cost savings, but a quick way to enhance information sharing.

That's because SharePoint allows end-to-end integration of multiple environments, he added. But he also said it is interoperable with other platforms and other types of databases.

Richey said E-Sponder fits into Homeland Security Department officials' goal of creating a network of information-sharing systems, such as the Joint Regional Information Exchange System, an encrypted counterterrorism communications system that uses a virtual private network to exchange sensitive but unclassified information.

Convergence and Microsoft plan to market E-Sponder nationwide.

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