Managers cite need for improved data-sharing systems

To improve interagency coordination, the federal government needs information systems that allow users from various organizations to access valid information while using different computer applications, a panel of federal managers said last week.

Federal managers from the Homeland Security Department, FBI and Defense Department outlined how their agencies are working to achieve interoperability-or the ability of people and information systems at different agencies to communicate with each other-during an Oct. 17 conference of the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.

"We need to share information that is actionable. If it's not actionable, it's irrelevant," said Louis Quijas, assistant director of the FBI's Office of Law Enforcement. Quijas is spearheading an effort to help ensure that state and local law enforcement authorities have a voice within the FBI and Homeland Security.

Quijas said federal agencies have been sending state and local authorities a lot more information during the past two years, such as alerts about potential terrorist attacks. But the challenge is disseminating information that has been validated and can be acted upon, he said.

Interoperability does not mean that people and systems have to "talk" to each other all the time, but rather only when they need to, said David Boyd, director of program management for DHS's SAFECOM program, which serves as an umbrella organization for wireless communications between local, state and federal public safety agencies.

But Boyd said the federal government should be cautious about issuing strict interoperability guidelines in the near future. He acknowledged that with 44,000 public safety organizations nationwide, organizations in some communities can't even communicate with each other yet.

"We can't put an interoperable system in today and say this is what you have to use when the guy on the ground uses a 30-year-old system," he said. "This is backward compatibility with a vengeance."

As agencies tackle the challenges of interoperability, many federal managers are looking to the Defense Department for guidance. Defense has been aggressively pursuing interoperability standards to better coordinate its global communications, logistical and tactical systems.

"It's now a possible task to talk about interoperability," said

Defense needs to move away from "application-centric" systems and move toward "data-centric" systems to achieve better interoperability, said John Stenbit, assistant secretary of Defense for networks and information integration. In a "data-centric" world, users would dump raw data into systems and the information would then be available for different users to access with different security privileges using different computer applications. The application-centric approach requires users to have the same programs, which creates problems for soldiers at the tactical level who have stripped-down systems.

Stenbit said operating in DoD's current information infrastructure, the Global Command and Control System, is like being able to subscribe to any magazine you want, but not being able to go to a library. "You only get what you are fed," he said.

Stenbit's office is circulating a plan in the Pentagon that calls for creating a common information system that would allow users to pull data they need on demand and view it using various applications. Users would be able to immediately tap into only the data they are cleared to see, from wherever they happen to be, Stenbit said.

Interoperability standards would change under this new approach because not every system will have to be fine-tuned to work with each other, Stenbit added.

"If we allow everybody to fine-tune each network, we'll never get our hands on the end-to-end [goal]," he said.