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The forgotten man in data sharing

Written by Brad Brewer

Real-time information sharing critical for front-line officers

We’ve all heard the term a thousand times: “Real-time data sharing.” Every company with even a toe in the waters of the public-safety software market throws the term around like candy. But, too often what is called “real time” is anything but. But what should real time mean in a data-sharing context?

When the average person thinks of real time, he assumes it means exactly what it should—that from the instant information on an incident, a person, a vehicle, etc. is entered into a local source (i.e., a police department’s records management system), it is available immediately to all other agencies and officers across jurisdictions who are connected under a common data-sharing network.

Unfortunately, due to three factors, this obvious definition of real time has not really taken widespread root in the public safety market. These three factors are: 1) An incorrect assumption that true real time is not yet possible; 2) An unfortunate opinion that true real time is simply not desirable or necessary; and 3) An unbalanced approach that puts the needs of strategic analysts (COMPSTAT) greatly over the officer safety needs of the “street cop.”

As such, because of these factors, the term “real time” has come to mean that as long as data is available within hours or sometimes days from when it is originally entered into a local source (i.e., one agency’s RMS database), it is OK, and this is still considered real time. The truth is that real time should mean nothing more than seconds. Seconds after information is entered into one agency’s local RMS system (regardless of vendor), it should be available to any connected user, from any other agency anywhere across the data-sharing network in cruisers, on handhelds, etc.

If you are a police officer, alone in your cruiser at 0500, with a completely unknown vehicle and person stopped on the side of a dark, empty road, the definition of real time becomes much more than a philosophical question. It can mean the difference between a calm encounter and a potentially life-threatening situation. Consider the following scenario, which, while fictionalized for confidentiality reasons, is based on an actual situation that occurred on the East Coast of the United States a few years ago. This scenario takes place near a very large mall / entertainment complex. The mall actually sits at the junction of two townships in the same county and is patrolled by two different police departments. At 0530, an officer from one of the departments on patrol spots a car driving too slowly for the roadway just outside the mall’s perimeter, stopping and starting. When the car makes a turn without signaling, just to be safe, the officer pulls up behind the car and motions the driver to pull over. Before approaching the vehicle, he runs the plate through his local RMS database, but nothing comes up. He runs the plate through NCIC; nothing. He runs the plate through his state’s information sharing system; nothing. As far as anyone knows, this car is clean. But have any of these searches really given the officer the complete picture? Does a search of all these sources give him the confidence he needs to safely approach the vehicle? In this case, the answer would have been a dangerous “no.”

What these systems would not have shown is that a car with the same plate, matching the same description, was stopped literally 10 minutes earlier on the other side of the mall by an officer from the other department for virtually the same thing, driving too slowly for the roadway. The car was also stopped for the same thing at the same time the day before. One instance of driving suspiciously in the early morning doesn’t raise any flags, but two instances in the same 15-minute period, in the same general area does (especially together with the instance from the day before). It may be nothing, but the officer is going to treat the current, seemingly innocent traffic stop with a bit more caution.

Thankfully, the officer in this case didn’t have to stop with just the non-real-time searches. He had access to a real-time data sharing system on the MDC in his cruiser. It allowed him to run the plate instantly against all the local RMS databases throughout the county. The system, called C.O.B.R.A. from CODY™ Systems, allows him to access these RMS databases in true real time, with information that is accurate up-to-the-second on people, incidents, vehicles, etc. So, he saw the stop 10 minutes earlier, as well as the one from the day before. Armed with this info, he approached the vehicle with caution. Upon looking carefully into the driver’s side window, he noticed that the driver seemed nervous (beyond what is normal for a traffic stop). He also saw a glint of metal next to the driver in the space between the driver’s seat and the center console. This “glint” of metal turned out to be a 9mm with the serial number ground off, which led to a search of the trunk, where the officer found a veritable arsenal of weapons. Further investigation revealed that the driver had been casing the mall for a few days to determine the easiest place and time to get his cache of weapons in without much notice so he could access them for maximum effect.

This entire situation became a non-issue due to a perfect mixture of an officer’s instincts, county-wide inter-agency cooperation, and software that creates and maintains exactly the type of true real-time county-wide data sharing this officer had at his fingertips. Without the C.O.B.R.A. software, the officer would probably have just written a quick citation and sent the driver on his way. Who knows what would have played out in that case, but certainly nothing good. In the end, the only thing standing between our police officers and the danger that threatens them every day is information. But in order for that information to be useful, officers must be confident that it is actionable. The only way to give them that confidence is to make sure the information they have available is current, up-to-the-second.

The software system used by the officer in the above scenario is real and has been assisting officers in their dangerous mission for 10 years now in data-sharing consortiums across the United States. CODY Systems, which provides C.O.B.R.A., is a 30-year veteran in the public safety software market.

C.O.B.R.A.

The real-time data sharing technology inside C.O.B.R.A. allows information entered locally into records management systems at linked agencies to be synched with a center-point data center and made accessible to first preventers in the field from other linked agencies within six seconds of it being entered at the local level. But what is of equal note is that the system works with disparate RMS systems from different vendors and requires RMS vendors to do next to nothing in order to connect their client agencies to C.O.B.R.A. This technology is what allowed the officer in the scenario to run the plate in seconds and get all the prior contacts from across all the RMS systems in the county (including the one only 10 minutes earlier) presented to him in his cruiser within six seconds of running the query. The unfortunate reality is that far too few jurisdictions have access to such real-time cross-jurisdictional information. CODY has more than 400 customers, including the state of Indiana and federal agencies. However, this benefit to officer safety should be even wider spread. Most agencies today rely solely on systems such as NCIC, state data warehouse and the like, or other less than real-time data sharing systems. While these are valuable resources, they do not reflect ALL the most current information that should be available to officers and agents in the field. Such sources are often hours, days, if not weeks behind reality, forcing field officers to rely on data that may or may not be current. Furthermore, such high level sources are limited to actual reported crimes. So, in our scenario, the simple police activity reporting that occurred would never have been a blip on the radar. This “data gap” is a clear and present issue facing police. Officers deserve to have access to real-time information from all relevant sources, updated within seconds of entry in the local RMS.

Currently, there is no standard for what should constitute real-time data sharing within the public safety sector. Systems that merely update data sources once an hour, a day, or even a week has become the accepted—but dangerous—industry norm. Adding to the problem is the fact that in public safety and homeland security agencies across the United States, there are hundreds of different vendors’ systems, data warehouses, database languages, etc. All of these variables can make it difficult for agencies to easily, quickly and securely share their data and provide actionable information to first preventers. Real time in the world of data sharing has long been thought of as a myth; many people say it would be great, but the technology is not there yet, or even if the technology is there, departments will never allow it. Well, as the above true scenario should illustrate, the technology IS here and has been for 10 years. Departments will allow it if the proper security safeguards are in place for their data, and they are in desperate need of it to support their officers in the field. In actuality, real-time data sharing is not a myth; it is a field-proven reality. Technology is now so far advanced that real time is no longer merely a buzzword without substance; it can now be clearly defined and demanded by agencies. Real time means that as data is entered at the local level, regardless of RMS vendor, within six seconds it is made available to other agencies’ users at the desktop or in the field. This is real-time data sharing, and it’s what first preventers and responders should have to be keenly aware of any situation they face. Certainly COMPSTAT and strategic analysis (like what normally goes on at fusion centers) is of great importance to the overall public safety mission. In that world, perhaps the need for real-time data sharing is not as great. But, in the world of the officer on the street, as illustrated in this article, real time is of paramount and critical importance. Unfortunately, most data-sharing projects—especially those at the state and national level—place such an unbalanced emphasis on COMPSTAT strategic analysis that the need for real time has not been brought into sharp focus. Ultimately, in the world of data sharing, street officers and tactical agents have been forgotten. Their need for true real-time access to “up-to-the-second” data has played second fiddle to the needs of the strategic analyst.

Real-Time Tactical Data Sharing

According to CODY, to achieve the goal of real-time tactical data sharing, a four-step process is used. The overall theme is real-time data fusion and sharing to the edge of the public safety network—to officers and agents in the field using MDCs, handhelds, tablet PCs, smartphones, etc. These operatives are known as first preventers due to their unique position to avert, rather than respond to, a major event.

The C.O.B.R.A. System, powered by CODY’s real-time Express-Bridge data fusion technology, follows this approach to achieve its critical goal for first preventers. Real-time translation and transmission is accomplished through an on-the-fly universal data source translator (UDST). CODY calls this the ExpressBridge. As data is updated in any connected agency RMS system, the UDST translates it into a common format and transmits the new or changed data within seconds to an insulated data silo reserved for that agency in a centrally managed server (or server farm depending upon the consortium’s size). Once in the agency’s silo, it is available to all users in all participating agencies.

Translation

The first step to data fusion and sharing is linking with pre-existing RMS systems throughout the jurisdictions within a data-sharing network and translating data into a common language in order to transmit it in real time from each connected participating agency’s record management systems (regardless of vendor) to the agency’s data silo in the central data center. The ability to quickly, efficiently and easily connect to a local vendor’s RMS in place at a local agency and synch this data in real-time for first preventers is truly the lynchpin of any successful initiative.
Keep current RMS (regardless of vendor)—The key to a UDST’s success in enabling real-time data sharing for a consortium of agencies is its ability to link up in real time with each agency’s pre-existing local RMS using a reusable synch template for that RMS vendor’s system. As data are entered into the local RMS, they are translated into a common format for synchronization to an agency’s data silo on the centralized server. Within this there are two distinct but equally important elements: 1) the ability to synch with any RMS vendor’s system; and 2) the ability to achieve this synch in real time.
NIEM capability—A UDST should support interoperability with NIEM/GJXDM and provide the capability for any connected local agency to support conformance with NIEM. Further, a UDST should be able to leverage and reuse the same synch template for each instance of the same vendor’s RMS system, so the same work does not need to be done (or paid for) multiple times.

Transmission

As mentioned previously, after data is translated from a local agency’s RMS, it must be transmitted to the agency’s data silo in the centralized server in real time. Anything less is to be avoided in order to provide actionable information to first preventers. As data is entered or updated in an agency’s local RMS database, the UDST translates it and transmits it within seconds to the agency’s data silo. The system only pushes precisely what has been changed—not the whole record or all related records. For example, if all that was changed in a record is the person’s middle name, then that is all that is transmitted. Also, the UDST must not introduce any significant IT overhead on anyone, especially the local agency or RMS vendor.

Storage

The centralized server works with the universal data source translator, enabling all disparate databases to be virtually integrated. With this centralized server, each agency has its own insulated data silo to ensure that no agency’s data is ever comingled with any other’s data. All agencies’ data silos and business rules for sharing are stored in the centralized environment (server, data center, blade cluster, etc.). NOTE: Maintaining absolute segregation of one agency’s synched data from all others in the central environment is the lynchpin that gives the data-sharing system its overall real-time speed. But more important, it allows the system to provide individual, agency-level control over every aspect of its involvement in the consortium. This ensures that privacy, criminal history and other such concerns are met.

Sharing

The three previous stages are necessary but not sufficient without the ability for users to access the shared data anywhere they need it. A true data-sharing system must include a place where first preventers—from desktop workstations in the field over laptops, MDCs or handhelds—can query suspects’ names, license plates, businesses and vehicles. This portal should be Web-based, requiring zero deployment—accessible from anywhere in the field without the need to bring devices (laptops, PDAs, etc.) into the location to deploy or load the software. The key to this phase is that data is available at a tactical field level in real time, as it happens, in addition to a desktop location. Most first preventers operate in the field, so this is where the information needs to be.

Ultimately, implementing and using a data-sharing system that includes the above elements will mean that seconds after a user at Agency 1 (using RMS Vendor 1) saves data into its local database, a user in a mobile unit 100 miles away at Agency 2 (not using RMS Vendor 1) can query that data and get results back instantly, thus allowing the officer to take the criminal off the street before he can commit his planned act. The adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly applies to the promise of public safety data sharing.

Officers on the street and their instincts are many times the first and last line of defense against criminal or terrorist activities. The primary mission of any data-sharing project and system should be to keep these first preventers safe so they can protect themselves and those they are sworn to protect.

The Cornerstone Data-Sharing Consortium in Southwest Missouri is just getting under way with its C.O.B.R.A. system. When the rollout is finished, agencies across three counties will join other C.O.B.R.A. sites nationwide in telling their officers that seconds do matter, officer safety is paramount, and they now have true confidence in the information they will be acting on.

Brad Brewer is a sergeant with the Vancouver Police Department. He can be reached at brad.brewer@vpd.ca. Photos courtesy of CODY Systems.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2009

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