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Working with C.O.B.R.A. systems

Written by James Careless

Across America, IT professionals in 150 public safety agencies are working with C.O.B.R.A.s. The reason? As the periods between capital letters imply, C.O.B.R.A.™ is not a venomous snake, but rather an acronym for Center-point Based Regional Access™ System. Designed and sold by CODY Systems, C.O.B.R.A. is a system and software-agnostic platform that allows public safety agencies to share data quickly and easily.

“C.O.B.R.A. is a complete software package that enables data-sharing and analysis between departments in a secure, technology-agnostic manner, in order to enhance officer safety and investigative efficiency,” said CODY Systems President David Heffner. “The first version of C.O.B.R.A. was deployed in 1998. Now we are on our fifth generation, with a product that allows data sharing between and among disparate databases and systems using a variety of connection algorithms including SOAP, XML, and GJXDM. The system can also be configured to conform to both jurisdictional data-sharing regulations and the differing information release policies of every agency on the system. If a department only allows names and addresses to be shared, C.O.B.R.A. will restrict third-party searches to this information. If the agency shares more data, then C.O.B.R.A will provide that level of response.”

C.O.B.R.A.’s Roots

The first-ever C.O.B.R.A. network was launched in 1999 by the Wyomissing Police Department of Berks County, PA. The concept was simple: Access to the data from this department and two others was made available to officers of all three—both on their mobile data terminals and back at the station.

“The immediate goal of the project was to provide municipal officers across the county with access to valuable county incident, want and warrant files in ‘real time’ through a single point of contact,” reported LAW and ORDER magazine in August 2004. “Now 44 police departments in Berks County are experiencing regional data sharing.”

CODY Systems is the IT company that made C.O.B.R.A. a reality. Most of the county’s police departments were already using CODY’s records management system (CODY Records™) to store information. With C.O.B.R.A., CODY made it possible for these departments to access each other’s shared data through secure wireless connections. The success of the Berks County system is what motivated the company to expand C.O.B.R.A. and to keep updating it.

How C.O.B.R.A. Works

In simple terms, C.O.B.R.A. is a cross-jurisdictional database search and analysis system, whose searches are made using information supplied by participating client agencies. This information is not stored in a central database. Instead, each client agency has its own insulated “data silo” on the C.O.B.R.A. Center-point server. Constantly synced via dedicated links between the agency and C.O.B.R.A., the secure data silo for a given client agency is a mirror of the agency’s database (or more precisely, a mirror of whatever the agency wants to share). Agencies get to set the rules as to how much data can be shared with other users and how much must remain private.

“We understand that different jurisdictions have different rules and regulations on how much and what kind of data public safety agencies are allowed to share,” Heffner said. “C.O.B.R.A. is designed to respect these differences, both by respecting jurisdictional data-sharing restrictions and by letting each client agency set the access rules to their data silo.”

Functionally, the C.O.B.R.A. applications platform is made up of four elements. These are the Center-Point Server, the System Admin Toolkit, the Tactical Access Center, and the Strategic Analysis Manager.

“The C.O.B.R.A. Center-Point Server is the heart and brain of the system,” said company EVP Fran Heffner. “We like to say that this is where the heavy lifting occurs that allows disparate systems and databases to talk to each other.” Specifically, the Center-Point Server stores all of the system’s network and agency-specific security rules, plus the data sync and storage algorithms that keep C.O.B.R.A. running smoothly. When properly configured, C.O.B.R.A. supports real-time sync between each agency’s database and its reciprocal data silo. This application also serves as a “Universal Code Translator,” converting each department’s unique descriptors to a common set of codes.

The Center-Point Server is also home to the client data silos. As mentioned earlier, all are kept separate from each other; there is no “co-mingling” of data. Finally, the Center-Point Server can meet federal government encryption standards when used with a FIPS-compliant (Federal Information Processing Standards) firewall or VPN.

The C.O.B.R.A. System Admin Toolkit is where administrators can define agency-specific sharing rules, user profiles, and permissions for individuals and/or groups. It also allows administrators to monitor and track each user’s activities on the system.

The C.O.B.R.A. Tactical Access Center (C.tac™) is the application that supports real-time patrol officer inquiries for names, vehicles, businesses, property, incidents, and other data elements shared under federal, state, or local regulations. C.tac can be used on mobile data terminals, laptops, and wireless-equipped PDAs. C.tac can be operated over wired and wireless networks, including cellular telephone modems, and mobile broadband networks such as EVDO.

Using C.tac, officers can, among other things, query the C.O.B.R.A. system using a range of search fields. C.tac supports full wild-card and partial-plate searching.

The C.O.B.R.A. Strategic Analysis Manager (C.sam™) can be used by investigators to complete multi-tiered queries across all data silos. The generated results can be plotted on GIS maps, customizable charts, or exported to report templates (as defined by the client agency) accessible within C.O.B.R.A.’s built-in report writer. One innovative feature: If you search the name “John Smith” using C.sam, the system comes back with all relevant name hits and the names of people associated with John Smith at user-defined degrees of separation.

CODY’s example illustrates how this works: John Smith was a victim of a hit-and-run, caused by a red Ford F-150 pickup. Working its way through various degrees of separation, C.sam determines that John Smith is related by one degree of separation to Mary, his sister. Mary is linked by one degree of separation to Dave, her business partner. Dave is linked to his brother Alex, who owns a red Ford F-150. Through four degrees of separation, a chain is discovered that runs from the victim to a Ford F-150. This doesn’t mean that Alex did it, but because most victims know their attackers, his F-150 is a good place to start.

Put these four applications together, and you have the complete C.O.B.R.A. platform. There are many more features, but we don’t have space to list them all.

Working with C.O.B.R.A. – IT Requirements

Technically, C.O.B.R.A. is a very capable and sophisticated system. Yet for its user agencies, C.O.B.R.A. is actually quite a pussycat. The reason: Once an agency installs the C.O.B.R.A. platform and establishes the data link between its department and CODY, the department’s work is essentially done.

“The user simply installs Oracle on their system, then runs a series of scripts that we provide based on their configuration parameters,” Heffner said. “From this point, it is just a matter of connecting their database to ours, and we handle the rest.”

“All told, C.O.B.R.A. makes it possible for public safety agencies to share information, while protecting their sources and minimizing the load on their IT departments,” he concluded. “It strikes the right balance between collaboration and confidentiality.”

James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at jcareless5000@yahoo.com. Photos and graphics courtesy of CODY Systems.


Published in Public Safety IT, Mar/Apr 2007

Rating : 9.5


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