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A Model for Sharing Data and Stopping the Bad Guys

A common problem facing CIOs in any enterprise, large or small, is getting your system to talk to -- ie, easily exchange data with -- trading partners, collaborators, and other stakeholders, When that enterprise is the US government, and the issues are terrorism, criminal justice, and disaster management, the stakes of "talking to each other" rise dramatically.

A set of tools to help solve this problem is the National Information Exchange Model or NIEM. While NIEM began to help governments meet terror threats, its approach to breaking through information silos and use of established standards -- including XML -- provide a model to address issues beyond security.

NIEM, now in version 2.1, started as a partnership between the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. That initial collaboration has grown to include agencies responsible for intelligence, immigration, emergency management, international trade, and infrastructure protection. And the large undertaking to develop common electronic health records has adopted NIEM as well.

A key part of NIEM that makes data understandable among participants is common semantic data components These common references, based on ebXML core components, make it possible to match the same basic semantic concepts among agencies and organizations that define and code those concepts differently. As a result, agencies taking part in NIEM can keep their current systems, yet still exchange data with other groups and agencies using different systems.

Sharing information as seemingly basic and simple as a person`s name, for example, can get complicated when agencies with different missions get involved. A local police department`s records may ask for a person`s first, middle, and last names. But immigration or intelligence authorities working with data on people from various cultures -- where the order of the names have different meanings -- will code the same data as family and given names, not first, middle, and last.

A common semantic reference is needed to match these different ways of defining the parts of a person`s name that NIEM provides. Establishing these common semantics has another benefit: They make it possible to reuse the common components when new applications arise, which speeds up new systems development.

Information exchange packages and templates

Another important NIEM concept is the information exchange package or IEP -- collections of data widely used across participating domains. IEPs are expressed as XML schemas, and when combined with details of the the structure, content, and other artifacts of the information exchange, it becomes an information exchange package documentation (IEPD).

One example of an IEP is data on arrests. A common data structure for arrests includes elements identifying the suspect, location, offense, and arresting officer, with a specific and reusable XML schema reflecting that structure. Since data on arrests are used in different ways by different agencies -- e.g., police, courts, immigration, intelligence agencies -- different IEPDs are created describing how that XML instance is used in each setting.

NIEM defines as well collections of message exchanges, called templates, for common document exchanges or database queries, such as filing incident reports or immigration-status lookups. Like components and IEPs, templates are reusable, and NIEM offers libraries of these message exchanges.

NIEM has become established in the security community, with applications defined for tasks such as terrorist watchlists and tracking hazardous materials, including nuclear reactor wastes. But you don`t have to be in the worlds of security or justice to be affected by NIEM or learn its lessons.

International freight, for example, must meet stiff security requirements, thus any company shipping or receiving goods outside the U.S. will likely deal with NIEM. And as noted earlier, the vital job of devising an infrastructure for electronic health records in the U.S. is adapting the NIEM concept.

Learn more: http://www.niem.gov

By Alan Kotok

Alan Kotok is editor and publisher of the Science Business news blog, and author (with David Webber) of ebXML: The New Global Standard for Doing Business on The Internet (New Riders, 2001).

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