Deja vu all over again

Dueling XML efforts raise concerns<@VM>Justice, Homeland Security want a few good pilots

"We are working with our collegues at FEMA.For stuff that's existing already, we don't want to do harm." ? Michael Daconta, DHS metadata chief

Olivier Douliery

Homeland Security Department Chief Information Officer Steve Cooper's announcement last month that his agency is collaborating with the Justice Department on a national data-sharing model may have had a familiar ring.

Just four months earlier, Cooper presided over the first public demonstration of another DHS data-sharing effort spearheaded by the department's Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Both the Justice-DHS partnership, the National Information Exchange Model, and FEMA's program, which has partnered with industry and public officials, are using Extensible Markup Language. The XML data models are open standards that let users share vocabulary and data formats among disparate systems.

Both collaboration efforts are pursuing similar goals. However, they appear to be on separate tracks.

During the Feb. 28 launch of the DHS national XML model, Cooper did not address what FEMA's role would be, and no one from FEMA was listed on the attendance roll.

The apparent disconnection is raising questions among government and industry officials about how DHS intends to move toward fuller data interoperability, which ideally would involve all its component agencies. Speculation is stirring on how and when the department's two XML initiatives will intersect and share significant information with each other.

"That's a question that's on all of our minds," said Scott Bliss, vice president of public sector sales for crisis management software developer Blue292 Inc., Durham, N.C. The company is a member of the Emergency Interoperability Consortium, a group of vendors and public officials formed in 2002 to develop XML models. The group in January signed a memorandum of understanding to partner with FEMA for those efforts.

"We are very interested in seeing how this plays out," Bliss said. "If it becomes clear that Justice will be the predominant model, we will conform to it."

The Justice-DHS national model and the FEMA models have developed mostly independently until now. "Now they're in the process of converging," said Art Botterell, a former California emergency management official and member of the interoperability consortium.

Since January, the FEMA-backed group and the Homeland Security-Justice group have met twice and have become "cordially cooperative," said Matt Walton, chairman of the emergency interoperability consortium and vice chairman of E Team Inc., a Los Angeles maker of crisis management software. "We want to encompass and leverage each other's efforts rather than stepping on each others' efforts."

The top DHS official in charge of the national data model also pledges to work cooperatively. "We are working with our colleagues at FEMA. For stuff that's existing already, we don't want to do harm," said Michael Daconta, who is co-leader of the national information exchange model and director of metadata for DHS.

Blending both Homeland Security XML efforts could be tricky, given their separate histories and constituencies. DOJ's Global Justice XML model, which will be the base of the new national model, links with state and local police departments, prisons and courts. First released in April 2003, it is used in data-sharing projects in all 50 states. One of its central components is a dictionary of more than 2,000 common terms used by law enforcement officials.

FEMA's XML work has been tied in with the consortium of state and county emergency management agencies, vendors of emergency software, emergency medical personnel and 911 call centers, among others. In 2003, before its formal agreement with FEMA, the consortium developed the Common Alerting Protocol, an XML standard for emergency managers to send warning messages to one another. The protocol was approved in 2003 by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a standards-setting body. FEMA endorsed it in May 2004.

Now, however, Homeland Security's new partnership with Justice to develop a national XML model has created uncertainty about how that initiative will mesh with FEMA's XML modeling programs.

Botterell, who led Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) efforts for the consortium, has two basic concerns about the new partnership. He said he hopes DHS and Justice will avoid imposing a "top-down" approach that falls short of providing the most useful information to those local agencies.

He cited shortcomings in the planning that created the California's Response Information Management System, a data-sharing system for emergency managers based on IBM Corp.'s Lotus Notes released in 1995, as an example. Local agencies did not receive all the benefits they hoped for in the final product, he said.

The key is for DHS to reach out to state and local agencies while in planning, he said.

Botterell also said the FEMA and the alerting protocol should not be overhauled to conform to a radically different national XML model, if such a model is developed.

FEMA officials did not respond to several requests for comment.

At best, complications are likely. "I assume it will be messy. It will be a long process, a political process, with miscues and bad starts," Botterell said. "A top-down approach would be very hard. The solutions need to be grassroots and cooperative."

Despite the challenges, there is optimism about the possibility of working together.

"The goal is not to reinvent anything, and to use the global dictionary [from Global Justice] already in place," said David Aylward, secretary of the ComCARE Alliance, a group of emergency medical personnel, 911 call centers, wireless services companies and public safety groups pushing for better wireless communications. ComCARE is a member of the consortium that works with FEMA on XML standards.

"The idea is to keep doing what you're doing, but let's coordinate it," said Aylward, who also is president of a Washington policy consulting firm, National Strategies Inc.

Some CAP public warning terms are in the Global Justice dictionary, but concerns about combining the FEMA and Global Justice systems focus more on the difficulties of developing common XML formats for messaging. Global Justice officials did not respond to several requests for comment.

Some concerns about blending the programs are likely to be at least partially soothed by Daconta's approach and his involvement with several other XML efforts in the federal government, including efforts to improve data-sharing within the federal enterprise architecture.

Asked whether FEMA may have to rework its XML approaches and solutions to conform to the national model based on Global Justice, Daconta promised a slow and steady method.

"With the National Information Exchange Model, initially we're taking a very careful, methodical approach," Daconta said. He intends to initiate voluntary pilot XML projects and is considering a pilot project with FEMA to test the applicability of the Global Justice model.

Daconta has met regularly since February with FEMA officials to "find out where the intersections are" between FEMA's XML projects and the Global Justice model.

"The emergency response domain [of FEMA] is very important, but it must intersect with law enforcement, border control and other domains," Daconta said. "This is very new. In the end it will be a coordinated process that works with both groups.

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com

 
The newly created National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) program -- created jointly by the Homeland Security and Justice departments -- is looking for pilot projects to test its standards for data sharing and interoperability, according to its co-leader, Michael Daconta.

A Concept of Operations document will be issued April 4 outlining the goals of the pilot projects, he said.

The team's new Web site, NIEM.gov, is expected to be operating online by May 1 to publicize the project and to attract state, local and private sector involvement, said Daconta, who also is director of metadata for Homeland Security.

"This is a national model, not a federal model," Daconta said. "Many state and local governments want the federal government to take a leadership position on how to do information sharing."

The new Extensible Markup Language national modeling project is being led by Daconta and Jeremy Warren, enterprise architecture specialist for the Justice Department. The project will use the Global Justice XML model developed by Justice as its baseline.

Daconta said the team expects to issue a Concept of Operations April 4 outlining the goals of the pilot projects.

One of the project's goals, Daconta said, is as much as possible to maintain the existing Global Justice standards that are already functioning in the field.

"The Department of Justice has adopted these standards, and we don't want to upset the applecart," Daconta said.

The same reticence applies to XML-based crisis management and alerting protocols developed in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he added.

Daconta said the new NIEM.gov Web site will help to involve state and local officials and industry groups in development of additional XML standards for the national model. "The process has to be collaborative," he said.

At the same time, though, he recognizes some groups that already have XML standards may need to migrate to the new standards.

"We have to balance competing and conflicting requirements," Daconta said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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