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The National Information Exchange Model: Progress and Prognosis

Written by Paul Wormeli

The National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) is the basis for automating information exchanges between and among agencies and communities of interest that are engaged in the critical missions of counter-terrorism, emergency and disaster management, law enforcement, public safety and the administration of justice. NIEM provides a standard vocabulary and data structure to facilitate the computerization of information exchanges, making it possible to create such exchanges faster, with less risk, and at a lower cost than other alternatives. NIEM has been released for production use and has been tested in pilot implementations.

The U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Justice launched NIEM on Feb. 28, 2005, recognizing the importance of building standards that would facilitate interagency and cross-domain information sharing. Because so much work had been accomplished in bringing various disciplines together to agree on terms and structure in the development of the Global Justice XML Data Model (Global JXDM), DOJ and DHS took pains to incorporate this work and the lessons of governance learned in this effort. Global JXDM is the highly replicated and award winning justice information sharing model developed under the leadership of the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the Office of Justice Programs of the U.S. Department of Justice, under the policy guidance of the Global Information Sharing Advisory Committee, a federal advisory committee to the attorney general.

NIEM complies with the Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD5), which assigns the secretary of DHS the role of principal federal official for domestic incident management. NIEM also supports the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which charges the secretary of Homeland Security with the responsibility for coordinating federal operations within the United States to prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. In 2004, Congress also passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA), and in 2005, Executive Order 13388 was issued by the president. Both items direct U.S. government organizations to strengthen the sharing of terrorism information between organizations and appropriate authorities of local and state governments and the protection of the ability of organizations to acquire this additional information. NIEM is viewed as a critical support mechanism to carry out the Congressional and presidential directives.

The NIEM Value Proposition

A variety of emergency situations in recent years have demonstrated in increasingly vivid detail the tragic consequences that often result from the inability of jurisdictions and agencies to effectively share information. Terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and tragic, large-scale criminal incidents too often serve as case studies that reveal weaknesses in our nation’s information sharing infrastructure. Even daily local events that involve multiple agencies, such as fire and law enforcement, illustrate the challenges to sharing information.

Citizens and decision-makers alike largely believe that organizations today can instantly share critical information at key decision points throughout the whole of the justice, public safety, emergency and disaster management, intelligence, and homeland security enterprise. Contributing to this perception is the portrayal of information sharing capabilities every day on TV and in movies. Moreover, the level of integration that is possible today is evident in an ever-expanding array of online services in commercial endeavors and consumer products (e.g., eBay and Amazon.com). Surely, first responders can share information and effectively communicate in emergency situations, when seconds count and lives are at stake.

It is an unfortunate reality that today, enterprise-wide information sharing is not universally possible. Even though agencies perform similar operational functions, their internal business processes are inconsistent, and they continue to use different information systems and technology to support them. They lack a national mechanism to identify and facilitate information exchanges with other agencies and jurisdictions. As a consequence, agencies are unable to effectively share information in a timely, secure manner, and too often, there are fundamental differences in the nature and understanding of information between them. We are faced with a series of information system silos that may meet the internal operations and business practices of individual organizations but are not positioned to effectively share critical data with others in support of day-to-day operations and emergency situations.

NIEM is an effort to solve one part of the problem—having a common vocabulary and data structure that will foster information sharing and support true information system interoperability. The goal of the NIEM Program Management Office is to build NIEM in such a way that agencies and organizations choose to use these standards to minimize the effort and maximize the efficiency in implementing automated information exchanges.

In the effort to support automated information exchanges across agencies and disciplines, NIEM stakeholders are viewed as a part of various different communities of interest. Communities of interest in NIEM are represented by domains. The current domains participating in NIEM are:

• Emergency management

• Immigration

• Infrastructure protection • Intelligence

• International trade Justice

• Person screening

The underlying principle upon which NIEM is based is that information can be categorized for the purposes of building exchanges into information that can be of use to all domains (universal data), information that may be useful across multiple but not all domains (data that is common to multiple domains) and then domain-specific data that is of interest only within a specific domain or community of interest. Dividing the totality of data elements into these three categories makes it easier to manage the process of reaching consensus on those data elements of interest to more than a single domain.

Another key principle in NIEM is that the communities of interest to be represented in NIEM are national in scope, involving local, state, tribal, and federal agencies and individuals in the exchange of information.

NIEM is implemented around reference namespaces, with each domain containing one of more such namespaces, and separate namespaces for the universal and common data components. Where possible, the objective is to identify authoritative sources that will define and support changes to the data components in each reference namespace. For example, the justice namespace will contain the domain specific components originally developed under the Global JXDM work, while those components from the GJXDM that have been found to be of universal or common interest have been moved from the former GJXDM to the universal and common namespaces where they can be managed by the NIEM governance structure. The justice namespace is then managed and supported at the policy level by the Global Information Sharing Advisory Committee and at the technical level by the Global XML Structure Task Force (XSTF), a representative body composed of local, state, tribal, and federal representatives of the disciplines reflected in the GJXDM.

The NIEM PMO and the implementing committees gave considerable thought to ensuring that the GJXDM would, by this process of both the technical design and governance structure, continue to serve the justice and public safety community and remain under the governance control of the stakeholders participating in the GJXDM. In particular, the XSTF will continue to expand and enhance the data content of the justice namespace and also be represented in the decision-making process related to universal and common data components.

The NIEM PMO is encouraging other domains to create a parallel policy and technical governance structure that would have control of their respective domain specific namespaces and be represented in the governance of the universal and common namespaces.

NIEM Governance

From its inception, NIEM was organized around the idea that it would be a consensual standard, not one imposed by a federal edict, but rather created and maintained by bringing national communities together to come to agreement on the contents of the standard. Care was taken to design a governance structure that ensured that each domain would have a voice in the decisions about the model and its implementation. The governance structure that was put in place to implement the model and make decisions on its future is represented in the following diagram:

Under the executive leadership of the Executive Steering Council and the NEIM Program Management Office, there are several key committees in which stakeholder participation is paramount:

• The NIEM Business Architecture Committee (NBAC) is designed to guide the development, harmonization, evolution, and implementation of the NIEM model and associated operating processes. The NBAC includes representatives from each of the participating domains that are engaged with NIEM.

• The NIEM Technical Architecture Committee (NTAC) is designed to address technical and structural details associated with NIEM development and implementation, provide the technical support, tools and methodologies to implement information exchanges, and ensure robust and effective development of the NIEM model structure, technical architecture and processes.

• The NIEM Communications & Outreach Committee (NC&OC) is tasked to ensure that information regarding NIEM is consistently and effectively communicated to the appropriate information sharing organizations and stakeholder communities.

• The National Priority Exchange Panel is responsible for facilitating the development of national priority exchanges, such as terrorist watchlists, people screening and incident reporting, and identifying new priority exchanges for consideration. The panel will engage authoritative representatives of agencies involved in national priority exchanges to ensure the achievement of strategic priorities.

• The NIEM Policy Advisory Panel provides ongoing advice, counsel, feedback, and support to the NIEM PMO on significant and emerging policy issues associated with NIEM planning, operations, and implementation. The panel is composed of senior officials of each of the key stakeholder agencies represented on the Executive Steering Committee.

A variety of local, state, tribal, and federal representatives from the various disciplines and domains engaged in NIEM serve on the committees and panels. Industry representatives participate as well, mostly through the auspices of the IJIS Institute, a nonprofit consortium of 180 information technology companies focused on improving information sharing in justice, public safety and homeland security.

NIEM as a Methodology

NIEM is more than a data model. A critical part of NIEM is the definition of exchanges that conform to the model in a disciplined way that makes it abundantly clear what the exchange is and defines it in enough detail for technologists to implement the exchange in automated systems. The methodology for doing this in connection with NIEM is applied to create what has been defined as an Information Exchange Package Documentation (IEPD). NIEM has carefully defined the requirements for preparing an IEPD and has published a tool to help agencies create the IEPD. There is also a repository of reference IEPDs that has been developed so that these specifications can be reused and extended where appropriate.

As the IEPD Lifecycle diagram shows, the IEPD lifecycle begins with a strong emphasis on the business need for the exchange, as expressed in a scenario describing the requirement and conditions for initiating the exchange. Following a detailed requirements analysis during which the specific data required for the exchange to be useful are identified, the data elements are then mapped to the NIEM and extended as necessary. The culmination of the process leads to the generation of an XML schema representing the exchange, and the creation of constraint and extension schema as necessary to perform the exchange.

The business need, rules, mapping and XML schema along with such other material as has found to be useful are documented in the IEPD and posted to the IEPD clearinghouse, encouraging potential reuse by others seeking to implement the same or similar exchanges.

Reasons for Adopting NIEM

The basic value in using open standards such as XML and associated Web services as a means of implementing information exchanges has been well-established in the commercial world, and also in the justice world through the widespread adoption of the GJXDM. The first and foremost value is that this approach significantly reduces the time and cost of implementing exchanges. Agencies that have adopted the GJXDM have reported savings of as much as 50% to 75% of the total project costs. Further, the use of a technology neutral standard offers agencies a stronger protection from obsolescence in implementation. Agencies choosing to adopt NIEM will most likely experience similar savings.

Recent actions have brought us to the point where government agencies can begin to use NIEM as a basis for information exchanges. There are compelling reasons for agencies to adopt NIEM now and begin to build information exchanges around this model. The reasons are as follows:

1. NIEM is in production. The release of NIEM 1.0 on Oct. 30, 2006, culminated a long process of revising, expanding, improving and making NIEM more accessible and useful. NIEM 1.0 can be downloaded directly from www.niem.gov.

2. NIEM is tested and ready. NIEM 1.0 is derived from the highly successful nationwide implementation of the Global Justice XML Data Model and includes improvements found from the experiences of implementing the GJXDM. Furthermore, a number of pilot tests of NIEM have been conducted by various federal agencies with the results from the pilot testing fed back to the developers to support the production release that was issued.

3. Documentation is available. The NIEM Web site contains a significant amount of documentation including the concept of operations, the naming and design rules, the model itself, useful code tables and many more helpful instructions.

4. Tools and support are available. At www.NIEM.gov, there are tools to automate the process of developing Information Exchange Package Documentation, a tool to automate the generation of an XML schema, and browser tools to explore the model. Also, the participating agencies have created a National Information Sharing Standards Help Desk and Knowledge Base where interested parties can browse the knowledge base and submit questions that will be answered by either the help desk staff or knowledgeable experts in the use of NIEM. The knowledge management system and help desk are available at http://it.ojp.gov/ gjxdm/helpdesk/.

5. Training and technical assistance are available. Courses are being taught around the nation in the practical implementation of NIEM. Grants have been given to service providers to help state and local agencies implement information sharing practices using the combination of NIEM and GJXDM.

6. There is a release plan in place. The next release of NIEM, code-named Harmony, will be delivered in the first half of 2007 to add to the improvements already introduced in release 1.0, but the structure of the Harmony release will build on what is already in place particularly with respect to namespaces so that the migration to this new release will not be troublesome. Further, the NIEM Program Management Office is already at work considering the functionality of the next release beyond Harmony.

7. Special conditions on grants mandate NIEM conformance. Grants made from DOJ and DHS in the future will incorporate special conditions that require grantees to develop information exchanges in conformance with NIEM and to submit sample reference documentation (IEPDs) to the central clearinghouse to facilitate reuse.

8. Reference IEPDs are being developed. A number of federal, state and local agencies are collaborating to publish reference documentation to aid others in the development of the schemas and other artifacts to support cost effective information exchange implementation.

9. NIEM is the means for intergovernmental information sharing. The president has approved and sent to Congress the implementation plan developed by the program manager for the Information Sharing Environment declaring that NIEM will be the way that state, tribal, and local agencies will share information with federal counterpart agencies.

10. NIEM has already been adopted for implementing important national systems. The FBI has adopted NIEM as the basis for its National Data Exchange (N-DEx) program and its IEPD will be based on NIEM. The DOJ Law Enforcement Information Sharing Plan sets forth NIEM as a basis for interagency information sharing. Other systems in DHS and DOJ will follow suit. For agencies that intend to participate in these and other important federal systems and programs, the use of NIEM is the way to prepare.

The Future of NIEM

During the first half of 2007, the primary work in preparing the Harmony release is focused on improving the harmonization of data components across domains so that that the entire data model has consistent semantic meaning for all participating domains. Some other technical improvements will also be addressed, but the basic structure of NIEM will remain similar to that of release 1.0 as it exists today. The next release beyond Harmony will likely focus on additional content and features.

The NIEM PMO and the governance organization are committed to serving the multitude of NIEM users through the development of better tools and further automated functions for building schema and IEPDs, and additional capabilities will be added to NIEM as it progresses.

There is already considerable interest in and discussions about expanding NIEM to incorporate other domains for which there is a great need on the part of the current stakeholders to build automated information exchanges. As agencies seek to improve the speed and accuracy of information sharing across more domains, NIEM seems the logical choice as a framework for doing so. Discussions have already begun with domains related to health information technology, public health, transportation, and drug abuse. IEPDs have been created for the exchange of prescription drug abuse information between states, and the Intelligent Transportation System program at the U.S. Department of Transpor-tation is working on developing connections to public safety agencies initially using the GJXDM but considering the potential of NIEM. Some state CIO’s see NIEM as an important standard in statewide information sharing among the relevant disciplines, and have expressed interest in applying NIEM in a variety of other domains. While there is still work to do to implement national information sharing in support of public safety, justice and homeland security missions, the expansion of interoperability to these other domains is of great interest.

As such expansion to other domains is considered, there will be additional ways to incorporate other external standards beyond the alternatives already contained in NIEM. Rules and conventions for mapping to other standards will be important as NIEM evolves. NIEM recognizes that other government architecture projects have developed mature and internationally recognized technical standards that agencies will want to reuse in conjunction with NIEM.

Although the federal agencies participating in NIEM have developed valuable enterprise architectures, they are also seeing that reference implementation architectures based on service-oriented design principles are very useful in promoting interoperability bet-ween domains and agencies when constructing information ex-changes. Both the PM-ISE and the DHS CIO have endorsed service-oriented architecture and are developing detailed guidance for implementations based on SOA. Global has also endorsed SOA as the preferred implementation strategy for information sharing and it has sponsored work on a Justice Reference Architecture (JRA) using SOA principles in the justice domain. All of these SOA-based implementation architectures leverage the NIEM data model and NIEM IEPD’s for reference information exchanges. Because the various SOA reference architectures complement NIEM and complete the technical architectures needed for actual exchanges, it is important that they all share a common data model and design philosophy. In the future, it may be possible to link these implementation architectures much like the semantic content of the NIEM data model is being normalized now.

It has already been noted that enterprise architecture plays an important role in assuring the useful deployment of information exchanges using NIEM. The Global Information Sharing Advisory Committee has already endorsed the use of service-oriented architectures as the preferable direction for justice and public safety system development, and the Global Infrastructure and Standards Working Group is developing a Justice Reference Architecture (JRA) that will fully describe an enterprise architecture for the justice and public safety domain. Discussions and deliberations are already under way to harmonize various domain architectures and the JRA has been cited as a useful construct that could be a contender in other domains as a model enterprise architecture.

Finally, it is likely that improved semantic technology eventually will call for a move beyond XML to an ontology based structure that takes advantage of new standards as they emerge and become widely adopted. The design of NIEM has from its inception anticipated the future of semantic technology and will make this transition when the time is right to do so.

NIEM is rapidly gaining acceptance at local, state and federal levels, and it offers the promise of fulfilling the need to have a common understanding of information across many domains as a basis for information sharing and interoperability. The full value of NIEM will be realized as adoption and use become widespread throughout the nation. This is a national imperative.

Paul Wormeli is chairman of the NIEM Communications and Outreach Committee. He is also the executive director of the IJIS Institute. He can be reached at paul.wormeli@ijis.org. He maintains a blog on disruptive technology in justice and public safety at http://radio.weblogs.com/0126029/.


Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2007

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Bureau of Justice AssistanceCommunicationsDepartment of Homeland SecurityDepartment of JusticeEducational CoursesExecutive Order 13388GJXDM (Global Justice XML Data Model)Grants Homeland Security ActHSPD5 (Homland Sec Pres Directive)IEPD (Info Exchange Package Doc)Intelligence SharingInteragency CooperationInteroperabilityInteroperability TechnologyIRTPA (Intell Reform a Terrorism Prev Act)JRA (Justice Reference Architecture)N-DEx (National Data Exchange)NIEM (National Info Exchange Model)Office of Justice ProgramsSOA (Service Oriented Architecture)Terrorism PreventionTraining CoursesXSTF (XML Structure Task Force)
 

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