The new public-safety language

The National Information Exchange Model provides a rallying point for government and industry to coordinate homeland security efforts

Many state and local law enforcement officials eagerly joined an early federal effort to use Extensible Markup Language to streamline data exchanges within the law enforcement community. Several regions shot ahead of the pack and began incorporating a federally designated Global Justice XML Data Model (GJXDM), only to find the Justice and Homeland Security departments are now pushing a different framework, the National Information Exchange Model.

Federal officials released last month the second production version of NIEM, which moves the framework closer to the concept’s original purpose, which was to cover a broad range of homeland security-related activities. NIEM goes beyond law enforcement by also applying to emergency response, disaster management, the screening of people and cargo, and international trade.

Justice and DHS officials are quick to point out that NIEM builds on the previously prescribed GJXDM. But early adopters of the precursor model might need a little time to warm to the new framework because moving from one to the other will require some work, officials said. At the same time, most officials agree that NIEM will be useful for computer exchanges that involve a variety of data, including criminal records, arrest warrants and details about suspicious persons or activities.

“NIEM offers standard agreement on terms contained in computer-based messages,” said Paul Wormeli, executive director of the Integrated Justice Information System Institute, which recently released NIEM 2.0 on behalf of Justice and DHS. “There can now be agreement on what different words mean and the structure and relationship of data. Reports of suspicious activity will have elements that are well-defined and related in a data model law enforcement can use without manually having to re-enter data.”

Beyond law enforcement
Officials say they appreciate NIEM’s broad scope. “GJXDM was a stand-alone model, limited to criminal justice,” said Anne Roest, deputy commissioner and chief information officer of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. “The broader exchange of information will enable comprehensive responses and solutions to problems, such as public safety.”

A growing number of projects use NIEM standards, Wormeli said, including:

  • The FBI’s new National Data Exchange program, a national repository of criminal incident information.

  • The Sentinel project, an automated case management system for federal law enforcement agencies.

  • Justice’s Regional Data Exchange.

New York was among the first states to adopt NIEM when the state decided to make it the foundation of the New York State Integrated Justice environment. This fall, the state will use NIEM in its eJusticeNY Web portal. That portal will facilitate information exchanges among the Department of Correctional Services, Division of Criminal Justice Services, Division of Parole, Division of State Police and the Office of Homeland Security, Roest said.

The state was chosen recently to participate in the Criminal History Information Exchange Format project in which nine states will exchange information using the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System. NLETS is a message-switching system that uses commercial frame-relay service to interface with state systems. A nonprofit group, the International Justice and Public Sharing Network, maintains the system.

“The purpose of the project is to exchange rap sheets with NLETS using either NIEM or GJXDM as the standard,” Roest said.

Along with New York, Florida has emerged as another NIEM frontrunner. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has established the Florida Law Enforcement Exchange (FLEX) project to map data and establish new regional information sharing systems. NIEM will play an integral role in FLEX.

“The state quickly realized that we needed a way to share data statewide, given that we had over 400 a gencies to accommodate once you include police and sheriffs’ departments,” said Mike Phillips, FLEX project manager.

“NIEM will give us a common translator for basic queries on suspicious persons, vehicles or local warrants,” Phillips said. “Ultimately, NIEM will help provide us with seamless workflow since there will be one point of entry instead of redundant rekeying.”

Officials in other states are also beginning to use the new standard.

“In Texas, stakeholders have been very receptive to using NIEM,” said Don Farris, project manager of the Texas Path to NIEM initiative. “We realize that the NIEM standard provides an excellent foundation for building critical information exchange standards.”

Meanwhile, local and state governments that have grown attached to GJXDM don’t reject the new standard. “If we were just beginning to work in XML, we would definitely use NIEM, but since we have been involved with GJXDM from the beginning, we have too much invested at this time to go back and redo existing work,” said Nancy Rutter, data administrator at the Maricopa County, Ariz., Integrated Criminal Justice Information System.

Instead, Maricopa County officials will adjust GJXDM-based systems and processes as necessary, Rutter said. “If we find that we need to share data outside the county or receive data from others utilizing NIEM, we will just use XML transformations,” she said.

In some cases, NIEM has forced some hard decisions for agencies working to smooth data exchanges, Phillips said.

“When we began developing a process for building relational models for mapping agency data, we did that initially in GJXDM,” he said. “We got to the point where we were doing some of the actual data mapping. Right in the middle of our efforts, we heard about NIEM and had to ask ourselves if we should stop everything and transfer to NIEM. It took some real soul searching, but we did it.”

Florida’s transition to NIEM went fairly smoothly, Phillips said. “Though GJXDM is supposed to be upwardly compatible with NIEM, this is not always the case,” he said. “Still, even for states that have fully implemented exchanges using GJXDM, it’s not a disaster.”

NIEM notables
NIEM uses a national standard to create a common vocabulary, and it offers users a structured approach for developing records and reference documents. Those elements are encapsulated in reusable NIEM building blocks called Information Exchange Package Documentation.

The IEPDs include a set of schemas for specific XML exchange instances. An IEPD might include examples of style sheets to use when entering new data components or assembling existing data.

“NIEM provides a standardized set of reusable data components and XML representation for enabling interoperable information sharing,” said John Wendt, principal research scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Research Institute. Justice and DHS funded the institute to develop NIEM data models, an architectural framework, technical standards and tools.

Although states use the NIEM standard to build customized IEPDs, many pioneers are publishing those IEPDs to a central NIEM IEPD clearinghouse, where others can use them. For example, New York has completed more than 200 IEPDs for sharing information with state officials and the National Crime Information Center and with several state systems, including New York’s Wanted Person System, Missing Person System and Unidentified Person System.

Texas is taking a two-part approach to NIEM. First, the state plans to finish updating its Texas Justice Information Integration Initiative plan by the end of August. The state will then build 28 IEPDs designed to address data-sharing weaknesses that officials identify during an ongoing gap analysis.

“These information exchanges will be centrally located in a repository for public use and can be updated or extended to encompass additional needs as necessary,” Farris said. “The result will be more accurate and complete information enhancing the decision-making capabilities of public-safety officials.”

Despite the availability of reusable exchanges and NIEM’s promise to pull together law enforcement and other homeland security agencies, incorporating the standard isn’t easy, said Herb Strauss, research vice president for Gartner’s Government Research unit.

“It’s hard to argue the business case for NIEM, yet the devil is always in the details,” he said. “Developing cross-agency XML policies and methods for effective implementation can be challenging. The technologies here are enabling, but interagency leadership, management and cooperation will be vital.”

Justice and DHS have expressed a clear preference for the standard and have gone to great lengths to offer tools that will help authorities migrate to NIEM. The unspoken understanding is that federal decision-makers will look favorably on efforts that include NIEM, Wormeli said.

“There is no direct NIEM funding at this point,” he added. “However, DHS funding is available for overall efforts to improve information sharing, and these days, that often involves incorporating NIEM.”

McAdams is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.


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