CIO Perspective

NIEM: The key to improved information sharing

My previous column focused on homeland security information sharing, both in terms of the successes of the past decade and the remaining challenges. One of the key successes has been the formation and maturation of the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), a community-driven approach to defining the definitions by which data can be shared among systems and organizations.

NIEM uses the XML standard to define the content of messages being exchanged. It's about the data and how it's structured. Users can also take advantage of tools that implement the Unified Modeling Language profile for NIEM, which generates XML and provides a business-oriented understanding of the exchange.

Yet NIEM is only one piece of the information exchange solution. Depending on their business requirements, information exchanges also require access controls, policy automation and other aspects of implementation. Although NIEM was an outgrowth of efforts that began in the justice and law enforcement community more than a decade ago, today it supports government exchange efforts in more than a dozen diverse communities, such as international trade, maritime, health and human services.

The value of NIEM stems from two main strengths: a community focus, and repeatable, reusable processes and tools that support the development of information exchanges. I was drawn to NIEM because of its ability to bring communities together, build consensus and work toward a better government through the sharing of data.

This is not a top-down approach. New NIEM communities are formed by having individuals recognize its value and band together to develop and extend the NIEM data model.

NIEM has a core set of data elements (i.e., standard definitions of person, location, activity, item, etc.) that all communities use. NIEM's extensibility allows each community to define additional data elements specific to that community. The members who use NIEM oversee the governance of the model for a community.

NIEM has matured to the point that there is a standard approach for developing an information exchange, which is the compilation of business and technical documentation that can be understood by the producer of the information exchange and the receiver. Those exchanges are documented as Information Exchange Package Documents. Over time, open-source and vendor-provided tools have evolved to support the development of such information exchanges and the creation of IEPDs.

The documentation of an IEPD includes NIEM-based XML schemas (for data exchange) and business documentation (for understanding the business context and use) that outlines the use case(s), business requirements and rules for the exchange. Additional business documentation includes point-of-contact metadata and lineage to link to previous versions of the exchange.

That detailed documentation provides the ability to reuse exchanges, thereby saving significant development time and providing a means by which additional organizations can more easily implement exchanges as they reuse and enhance existing IEPDs. For state and local practitioners, that ability has been an incredible added benefit to NIEM adoption.

In the past few years, there has been a competition to recognize the "best of NIEM." Here are a couple of examples from the crop of 2013 winners:

  • Government officials in Richmond, Va., identified multiple points of failure in a manual exchange of information from commercial alarm-monitoring companies to 911 public safety answering points. Officials used NIEM to help automate the flow of information so that when someone hits the panic button on a PSAP-connected private security system, the "call to action" to first responders takes less than 15 seconds. That is much quicker than the two to three minutes or longer for the manual process.
  • Richmond officials also took an active role in the certification for testing the alarm companies' implementation and created a public/private partnership that is helping other communities to adopt the system. Local governments now using the solution include Houston; Washington, D.C.; James City County, Va.; and Tempe, Ariz.

  • Probationers and parolees might have an interaction with law enforcement, such as an arrest, but their probation or parole officers might not learn about that contact until days or even weeks later. Through an automated information exchange between the state's booking system and probation and parole case management systems, the Hawaii Integrated Justice Information Sharing program undertook a six-month development effort that has enabled near-real-time notification to probation and parole officers when one of their supervisees is arrested anywhere in the state, which is critical for effective offender management. As an example of reuse, Vermont was able to extend the capability to meet the state's requirements in less than a month.

All 50 states and at least 16 federal agencies have implemented or are considering solutions that use NIEM. Even foreign governments, including Canada and Australia, use NIEM, which means "National" is now a misnomer. Yet because NIEM started with justice information sharing, there are still misunderstandings about its applicability.

NIEM's value can benefit everything the government does. NIEM should be considered part of the solution to improving federal data transparency (e.g., via the Data Act and open-data initiatives).

I urge the Obama administration to fully support NIEM and champion its use throughout the government. In fiscally constrained times, NIEM is something the federal government can steward for all levels of government to reuse. I stated publicly when I was at the Department of Homeland Security that NIEM has a better return on investment for government than anything else we can invest in.

I urge you to learn more and get involved with what the NIEM community is doing by visiting NIEM.gov.

About the Author

Richard A. Spires has been in the IT field for more than 30 years, with eight years in federal government service. He served as the lead for the Business Systems Modernization program at the IRS, then served as CIO and deputy commissioner for operations support, before moving to the Department of Homeland Security to serve as CIO of that agency. He is now CEO of Learning Tree.

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