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When you need to know: The role of information sharing in public safety

Written by Mike Goebel

One of the most often used words in public safety today is “interoperability.” Agencies have realized in order to provide justice effectively throughout an entire lifecycle from investigation to arrest, arraignment, trial, incarceration and probation, it is essential to have access to disparate sources of data and allow agencies to seamlessly exchange information. Though tremendous strides are being made to enhance communications within and across various agencies involved in the criminal justice process, there is still a gap between what is actually implemented and what the public at large believes is taking place. Sadly, this gap becomes evident to the public when tragedy occurs.

In July 2008, for example, Officer Andrew Widman of the Fort Myers, FL Police Department was shot and killed by a man who never should have been released on bail because he had a warrant out for his arrest in an adjacent county. The fact that the judge was unable to see the defendant’s complete criminal history, including this outstanding warrant, initiated a series of events that resulted in the death of a dedicated public servant. This placed the court and the 20th Judicial Circuit in a position of extraordinary visibility, as the residents of Lee County and the press demanded an answer as to how something of this nature could happen. To make sure an event like this would not happen again, Lee County sought the experience and innovation of Dedham, MA-based Metatomix® Inc.

Metatomix is a leading provider of semantic technology to public safety agencies and has a long-standing history of providing solutions for justice and homeland security. It believes the philosophy that real-time access to information not only expedites the justice process, but enhances officer and citizen safety by empowering individuals with the tools necessary to make the best decisions possible.

Metatomix was able to build an application for Lee County called mtx Active Warrant Alert Calendar (AWAC), which automatically takes the list of names on a judge’s docket and runs each individual through a status and background check before his or her appearance. Every defendant is now checked through local, state and federal data sources for outstanding wants and warrants, sexual offender / predator status and violent felon classifications. Once the name has been run, it is placed on the judge’s electronic calendar in order of appearance. Before the beginning of each day’s hearings, the sheriff’s deputy from the court operations division, or court staff, need only to click on a name to get a complete 360-degree view of the individual, including notification using a configurable flag system that denotes outstanding warrants and other key identifiers.

Previously, this task was virtually impossible to do manually with so many different data sources in the allotted timeframe. This system has helped keep high-risk individuals off the streets and reduced costs within the courts by alerting a judge if someone who is due to appear is already in custody in another county. This reduces the number of bench warrants issued for “failure to appear” that later end up rescinded. It also results in immediate savings of time and money for the county. This application has been so successful since its implementation that it is now being considered as a statewide initiative.

In addition to the mtx Active Warrant Alert Calendar, Metatomix has a variety of solutions to address the varying needs of courts, law enforcement, and health and human services agencies for data exchange and information sharing. The mtx Justice Data Exchange (JDX) solution ties together existing case management and records management systems and automates the business critical processes of the participating criminal justice agencies, eliminating the need to rekey the data as it moves between agencies.

In many cases, when an individual is arrested in a county, the original arrest report is either faxed or hand delivered to the clerk of courts, district attorney, public defender, police department and magistrate’s office, and each agency re-enters essential components into its respective case management system. Beyond being highly inefficient, there is also an increased possibility for errors, which can result in criminals being released on a technicality. Making use of systems already in place, Metatomix’s JDX solution corrects administrative inefficiencies through the real-time exchange of data, thereby eliminating the need to rip-and-replace expensive software and hardware and train users on a new system, which can create performance and data integrity issues. The end result is the automation of a manual set of processes, reduced duplicate data entry, improved data quality, and the ability to allocate personnel to work on higher value tasks and initiatives.

Metatomix also addresses the complicated task of providing the criminal justice user a thorough, real-time background check on a person of interest through its mtx Justice Inquiry System (JIS). Even in our post-Sept. 11 world, agencies can be reticent to share information because they do not want to lose control of their data. Some are concerned with the budget associated with it. Many software solutions necessitate a data warehouse to store agency information in order to run queries. Metatomix, however, takes a far different approach using a Web-based query portal that non-invasively accesses disparate data systems and aggregates and correlates information into a consolidated 360-degree profile. This role-based system leverages an agency’s existing user-access control infrastructure for authorized access to available data sources and increases the efficiency of queries through a single sign-on that removes the burden of having to log in to separate local, regional, state and federal sources to conduct a background check.

Metatomix’s JIS solution uses a technique called iterative enrichment to continually enhance the information as it comes back from each agency, offering true real-time investigation ability. As each system returns more data, the user can drill down into each discrete source for complete information from the varying agencies. When the session has ended the information is purged from the system and returned to its original silo, thus removing the political hurdle of data ownership.

Investigating information on a person, albeit valuable, is only a small component of a criminal investigation. For this reason Metatomix created mtx Criminal Investigation (CI), which expands the functionality of JIS and allows an investigator to also query data sources for incident, location, property and vehicle information. This information is of great value for an investigation and helps keep officers in the field safe by enhancing what they know as they enter a situation. For example, using Metatomix CI, an officer who needs to serve a warrant can find out if there are known felons, conceal and carry permits, or other dangerous factors associated with the address of the person to be served.

This solution is also offered in a lightweight format that can be used in police cruisers or on mobile devices, again enhancing an officer’s ability to approach a situation with the critical information that could save his life. Capping off Metatomix’s investigation offering is the mtx Scalable Reasoning System (SRS), which offers real-time interactive visual analytics. The visualizations that can be created including data clusters, lists, timelines and maps help officers find trends and patterns within their data and more effectively solve crimes and allocate resources to high-risk areas.

In the current economic climate, agency budgets are being continually cut back, and people are being asked to do more with less. In the world of public safety, where lives are on the line, budget cuts can have severe consequences. Public safety organizations are challenged to combat modern problems with technologies that do not easily integrate and communicate with other systems that are critical to the justice process lifecycle. Metatomix has taken this into account when developing its product line. Its use of semantic data integration technology provides an innovative approach to the daunting task of sharing information and exchanging data across disparate systems. This technology is ultimately helping agencies maximize their fiscal resources through the elimination of inefficient processes. More important, however, Metatomix is helping keep officers and those they are sworn to protect safe through the empowerment of information.

Michael Goebel is the justice and homeland security marketing manager for Metatomix Inc. He holds an M.A. in American studies and writes in the field of technology and culture. He can be reached at mgoebel@metato mix.com. Grant Hawkins is a former law enforcement officer working as the director of programs for the Atlanta Police Foundation. He can be reached at grant.m.hawkins @gmail.com.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2009

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