Breaking Down the Barriers to Sharing Information

NIEM is making its move. The National Information Exchange Model is fast emerging as a key to the domain of cross-boundary information sharing. Having gained...
by | October 15, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

NIEM is making its move. The National Information Exchange Model is fast emerging as a key to the domain of cross-boundary information sharing. Having gained a beachhead in the Federal sphere NIEM advocates are broadening that beachhead and stitching together state, local, tribal and industry data as well.

You may yawn at standards, and - yes- standards are definitely "MEGO" stuff ("my eyes glaze over").

But the folks who actually slog through standards are adding power, dropping cost, and improving overall performance for every computer system they touch. And NIEM -- or at least, NIEM-conformance -- is emerging as the framework of choice for aligning data across different computer systems, and across other standards around the world.

Stitching together data from one computer to the other used to be a case for the Gershwins. "You like tomato and I like tomahto," as George and Ira wrote. The problem was - even though we were both talking about "red round fruits," our computers treated my "tomatoes" as entirely different from your "tomahtos". The temptation was great "to call the whole thing off," as the song goes. Collaboration, coordination, and agreements were just way too complicated.

The same has been true for diverse real-world domains from "children in care" to maritime domain awareness. If I say "vessel" and you say "boat", and he says "ship" and she says "conveyance", we may mean the same thing, but we have no way to tell our computer systems to behave and treat the words as having the same meaning. Until we do, we'll all have different facts about the same world--pieces of the big puzzle - but no common operating picture. We're headed toward the rocks of suboptimal performance.

The idea behind NIEM is to make it easy to buy into common naming conventions - what Federal Chief Architect (and a founding father of NIEM) Kshemendra Paul calls "semantic harmonization". It doesn't mean you have to change your dialect - you can still call those red fruits "tomahtos," which is great for legacy systems with 30 years of data about "tomahtos". But if you want to exchange information with me about my "tomatoes" we'll each have to wrap those dialect-heavy words in a harmonized name. Then we're off to the races.

That's the idea behind NIEM - and it sure looks as if NIEM is maturing and accelerating, perhaps becoming the dominant vehicle for cross-domain transit of information, letting your system and mine speak - even if they've never spoken before. Talk about government using its muscle to improve overall performance - both within government and cross-boundary to industry.

Earlier this month. NIEM gave out its first annual awards. Vivek Kundra and others reminded us of NIEM's journey and its future. It's built on a foundation of early agreements linking justice, homeland security, and public safety systems, assuring at least the possibility of interoperability among them. It recently expanded to include compatibility with UCORE - the Department of Defense's common operating language. The XBRL folks - who handle financial services standards - are now talking about harmonizing with NIEM as well. That's big stuff - promising long sought network effects from stitching together data from many computer system.

The awards pointed to diverse efforts taking hold. Look at Kansas, for example - moving to implement NIEM-conformant conventions for many systems each having a piece of the facts but not all in cross-boundary applications such as property information, driver and vehicle information, and social services

Look, also, for increased uptake and adoption of NIEM across state and local domains. Our good friends at New York's HHS Connect, for example, are building their cross-agency information exchange on NIEM-conformant naming conventions for "family", "address", "home" and hundreds of other "facts". It saves huge time if you don't have to reinvent the naming wheel - 10-30% by Paul's estimate. It improves accuracy, and assures sharability.

All this is "Good news for homeowners!" as that great New York Yankee Phil "Scooter" Rizzuto used to say. Its good news for taxpayers, who want to see improved performance at less cost. And its especially good news for police chiefs, port security directors, financial regulators, child welfare workers, physicians - anyone who has complex social problems to tackle crossing boundaries of many organization who needs as much information as possible - much of it kept by one of those other organizations.

Now, it's still hard to move data and information across boundaries of organizations and sectors. It takes political management, financing, governance -- and we're not famous for getting that figured out. So information sharing may still fail, but a lack of interoperability won't be an excuse much longer. What's possible soon begets the actual: if technology is an enabler, NIEM looks to be the WD-40 that will loosen the rusted bolts on the vaults of iron-bound systems and stovepiped data.

Zachary Tumin | Harvard Kennedy School of Government |