This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK
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The U. S. General Services Administration's (GSA) Office of government-wide policy, in conjunction with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), seeks information related to government-wide efficient and effective information retrieval and sharing.
This was the opening paragraph of the federal governments Request for Information (RFI) related to information sharing in mid-September. The government gave the information industry approximately 30 days to respond. This was the latest attempt in pushing the much talked about information sharing between agencies that everyone agrees is at the heart of preventing another 9/11.
The stated objective of the initiative was "to identify and promote the most cost-effective means to search for, identify, locate, retrieve and share information, and assess the net performance difference (including cost-benefits) of assigning metadata and/or a controlled vocabulary to various types of information versus not doing so." Thus, the explicit objective was to determine whether current search technology is robust enough to make metadata tagging unnecessary, in terms of cost and benefit.
While this question is certainly an important one intellectually, at its core the government is still struggling with the basic problem of information sharing that has become a barrier to so many government-wide initiatives. To the business intelligence community, the most interesting aspect of the RFI was that it went on to describe several scenarios "to provide context and examples" for responses to specific questions. And one can see from the following scenarios is the key role that business intelligence must play in these efforts. In effect it becomes quite clear that first and foremost information sharing and retrieval is about obtaining business intelligence.
Information Sharing Scenarios
Researching Unexplained Illnesses among Defense Contractors
A physician is treating a patient suffering from an unexplained illness. This patient was a defense contractor, who was supporting U.S. military operations around the world. The doctor needs to perform detailed research quickly, using available sources of whose existence he or she may or may not be aware. While the obvious sources are the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA), the physician may not know that other agencies possess the relevant information in their sources. Other such agencies include the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), etc.
Searching for an Expert
The government needs to rapidly study an "urgent, complex, yet relatively obscure" issue and needs to find experts throughout the Federal Government (civil servants, military personnel, retirees, and contractors).
Performing Academic Research
A student is preparing a report on Poland's involvement in the Cold War. He also must "discover the significant impact that Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa had in contributing to the end of the Cold War." As a part of his research, he wants to quickly locate and analyze all government and other information resources covering this topic.
Conducting an Information Audit Trail
An individual or organization must identify and track the flow of electronic information on a specific topic between government agencies. This must be done to understand how and where that information was processed, as well as to determine whether the information is accurate, relevant, timely and complete.
Sharing Law Enforcement Information across Jurisdictional Boundaries
A local police department raids an apartment on a tip and finds documents containing handwritten notes in a foreign language, as well as a ledger documenting what appear to be financial transactions. Next, they collect the documents and fingerprints and take photos. These materials are all digitized and posted to an information sharing exchange, where an investigator in a larger county can use the information for another investigation.
Possible Forged Identity
A credit card company discovers a series of accounts falsely established on behalf of unaware victims. The company notifies these individuals, who consecutively must notify all organizations with which they have a financial relationship. The fraud victims must also contact all governmental agencies from which they currently or potentially receive service.
Citizen Searching Online for Government Information about a Unique Topic
A citizen is searching for all available federal government information about a particular topic, including information located on government websites. She does this to avoid using the complex Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process.
In every one of these scenarios what we find is a user, analyst or knowledge worker, avidly searching for business intelligence from government sources at some level or another. The problem to date has been that we have found it very difficult to share information across the Federal government and/or with other levels of government such as state and local or with other national governments or intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations or the World Bank.
Barriers to Information Sharing
Barriers to information sharing between agencies generally fall into three major categories: cultural, statutory and technological. Cultural obstacles usually arise as a result of rivalry between agencies, or when one organization is suspicious of another. Sometimes this happens when one agency distrusts the level of competence in another or suspects that there isn't enough commitment to security.
Statutory barriers are directly tied to the law. There are numerous statutes prohibiting the dissemination of government collected information, such as Section 9, Title 13 of the U.S. Code. This statute protects the confidentiality of data gathered in the Decennial Census.
Lastly, there are technological barriers. Examples of this are relevant information captured in certain files or databases that are inaccessible or non-interoperable with another agency's. Another example of this is if the code structure or format is incompatible or unknown to the other organization. Technological obstacles, however, are usually the least important since they can often be overcome with effort, creativity and resources.
One shortcoming of the joint GSA/OMB initiative is precisely that they limited their RFI to the technological domain. While this is certainly a good start, there is much more we must do to develop the plan.
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.
Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. 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 email@example.com.
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