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On Information Sharing

Originally published April 10, 2007

Information sharing is the issue of the day. The premise is that the sooner we can connect the dots, the better positioned we will be to preempt bad things from happening, or to react quickly and mitigate the damage once something bad has happened.

Information sharing has been under the spotlight for some time – certainly since before 9/11. However, it was the shock of that attack that brought it to the forefront and wrapped it in the envelope of urgency in which we all carry it now.  

Information sharing has been the focus of an executive order issued by the White House and, because its importance is paramount, has generated a very significant amount of effort on the part of a large number of people.

Many of those very distinguished individuals sat around a table at the Brookings Institution, the preeminent think tank in Washington, D.C., last month at an event titled “Information Sharing: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” I co-chaired the session which was sponsored by the Computer Ethics Institute, Harte-Hanks Trillium Software and the Brookings Information Technology Services. It was important that they come together to chat because the complexity of the information sharing space and environment is often so wicked.

A large part of the debate has been dominated by the diverse perspectives of the intelligence community, homeland security and the law enforcement agencies. These differences are engendered by the different nature of their missions, and the passion of the debate is understandable because of the magnitude of the stakes. 

Then there is the need for information across the different levels of government. State and local governments, as first responders, have clamored and taken an increasingly stronger role in dealing with any crisis, whether caused by man or provoked by nature; and again they demand access to the information required for them to do their jobs within their jurisdictions.

And then there is the private sector, that, as my friend Al Martinez-Fonts (Assistant Secretary, Private Sector Outreach, Department of Homeland Security) always reminds us, owns about 85% of our nation’s critical infrastructure. The need to share information with these enterprises is likewise clear and extremely important.

However, we know that the need for information sharing is substantially broader than for the intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement communities. A couple of years ago, the General Services Administration (GSA) issued an RFI (request for information) under the title Efficient and Effective Information Retrieval and Sharing. It featured seven scenarios used to describe various common information discovery, retrieval, aggregation and sharing needs that are worth reviewing again:

  1. Researching unexplained illnesses among defense contractors
  2. Performing a search for an expert
  3. Performing academic research
  4. Conducting an information audit trail
  5. Sharing law enforcement information across jurisdictional boundaries
  6. Investigating a case of possible forged identity
  7. Citizen looking for all online government information regarding a unique topic

Many federal executives are stewards of certain information sources that are also essential for many other purposes beyond their original intended use. The Census is probably the most valuable collection of data in our nation. The Postal Service keeps track of every single household in the country and the whereabouts of people as they change their domiciles in order to deliver the mail. The Treasury tracks, and shares as needed, the financial flows that are both the clear footprints of our commerce and the fingerprints of our society’s enemies. Immigration data is essential for labor, business, justice, agriculture, law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security, not to mention to enable the future Albert Einsteins, Andrew Carnegies, Henry Kissingers and Andrew Groves to continue enriching the fabric of this country.

Yet we start to cringe when we hear about the possibility of the open sharing of information about who we are, what we do, where we live, what we own, what we owe and what we are owed, what ails us, who we like or dislike, what we eat or drink, and with whom. And as that private space that surrounds each and every one of us starts to crumble, we feel naked and violated to the point that we demand protection of our personal information.

This is so important to all of us that in just about every statute or executive order, there is always some clause that directs each agency to “protect the freedom, information privacy and other legal rights of Americans…” even as they implement the mandate. This is why when Congress enacted the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security, it mandated that it have a Privacy Office. This is also why many individuals who feel passionate about this issue have organized into institutions to advocate for ways in which to accomplish our information sharing needs while minimizing the harm to our privacy and civil liberties.

Even when all parts agree that we need to share information, it can still be difficult to accomplish. Nothing illustrates this better than the requirement for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) to exchange information. Once an individual enters the armed forces, they start to accrue certain rights as a future veteran and become eligible for benefits. Many of the types of benefits will depend on dates served, participation in specific campaigns and service-connected conditions. It is clear that all the defense institutions and the VA must implement IT environments that are very tightly coupled and coordinated in order to effectively and efficiently share relevant information. This has been a Congressional priority for decades; and while great progress has been made, there are still significant barriers to overcome.

There are three basic parts to this debate. We can think of them as the good, the bad and the ugly.

At the event, the good revolved around the enabling technology that is available today, or will be available in the next few years, that will facilitate information sharing. Scott Cragg, the Chief Architect for the Department of Veterans Affairs, led this discussion. Some of the principal disciplines or technologies involved are architectures (especially enterprise architectures and SOA – service-oriented architecture), ERPs, EAIs, ETL tools, metadata tools, data quality and integrity tools, enterprise models, data warehousing, data mining and business intelligence tools and search technology, as well as some of the fascinating new Web 2.0 artifacts such as blogs and wikis, MySpace and YouTube. And as we inch into the semantic web or Web 2.0, we must remember the importance of sharing not just data or information, but knowledge. Hence, it was also relevant to bring up knowledge management and exploration, communities of practice or interest and affinity groups, storytelling and e-learning as being particularly relevant in the context of information and knowledge sharing.

The bad addressed how information sharing happens today among federal agencies that need it and between foreign, federal, state and local governments, as well as with foreign governments, the private sector and the public – and how this happens as we balance the need to accomplish enterprise missions, stay within budgets and comply with all laws, policies and directives. Appropriately, this session discussed scenarios pointing to some “best practices” and identifying existing frameworks or protocols that might be helpful to apply in other settings. This session was guided by Scott Hastings, the recently retired CIO of US VISIT, the Department of Homeland Security component responsible for tracking visitors to the U.S.

The ugly could have deteriorated into a “whining” session, given that this is where we addressed the principal obstacles and challenges to information sharing among and across federal agencies, government jurisdictions and with other partners, such as the private sector. However, Homeland Security’s Al Martinez-Fonts made sure that it didn’t. The barriers can be statutory, technical, security, cultural, ethical or of any other type. The discussion was helpful in leading us to identify approaches and techniques that have worked in overcoming some of these difficulties as well as also pointing out what restrictions are truly necessary and which are not.

From these three discussion sessions arose a handful of recommendations to pass on to the relevant actors in the information sharing process.

Ultimately, the government needs information to perform its mission. In order to do it effectively and efficiently, it needs large amounts of information. How can we know where to build schools unless we know where families with children live and how many children they have? How can we plan for highway and bridge maintenance unless we have a handle on their usage?  How can we determine how many air traffic controllers we are going to need five years from now unless we can gather accurate statistics about the frequency with which the public flies or ships cargo by air? How can we assist cotton farmers to hedge the price variations of the marketplace unless we collect a substantial amount of data to estimate the impact of factors such as tariffs, technologies or weather? And, of course, how can we prevent the next terrorist attack without gathering significant amounts of intelligence on who are enemies are, and what they are planning when and where? In brief, the federal government cannot do without accurate and timely information if it is to provide the people of the United States with the services they need and want – and to do it protecting the civil liberties that we hold so dear.

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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