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A Fort Knox for Data

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2004-01-16 Print this article Print

President Bush might propose more space exploration, but connecting the federal government's labyrinth of systems may be a more audacious goal.

An international flight en route to the United States is delayed after a five-year-old passenger's name matches a name on a terrorism watch list. The Department of Agriculture euthanizes a herd of 450 cattle because it can't track the individual cows that came in contact with one infected with Mad Cow disease. An electronic system to monitor Secure Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) isn't deployed.

These three recent incidents illustrate how important information systems—and the subsequent sharing of data between them—have become to the federal government. Amid terrorism and other threats on the horizon, the federal government will likely have to create one platform for all agencies to share data, experts say. "The more you talk about it, the bigger it gets," says Darwin John, former chief information officer of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). "Information management could be the largest issue ever undertaken by the government with regards to policy and values."

Indeed, setting a deadline for the government to share data electronically could be a more audacious goal than President Bush's expected proposal for a lunar station and ultimately a manned mission to Mars.

The information-systems conundrum facing the government—lack of data standards, outdated technology and information that can't be readily shared or analyzed—is the same one many companies have tackled. But corporations don't have to deal with public-policy debates or the enormous scale of the federal government.

Darwin says policy often overrides the best technology fix. Think of all the policy issues raised by agencies sharing information: Who owns the data being shared across agencies? Can data held by one agency legally be shared with another? What are the security implications? How do you get all the parts of the U.S. government to agree on anything and then adopt it? How much Congressional input is needed?

"I have a lot of sensitivity to this question," says John. "It's a disservice to suggest there's a quick fix. This is not a simple issue and there are a lot of dynamics to finding a solution."

According to experts interviewed by Baseline, the best solution—even though it makes a few of them squirm—may be to set up a national data warehouse. Just as there is a currency plant in Fort Worth, Texas, to serve the nation, a data repository would suck in information from all the agencies in the government. Watch lists of names overheard in bars could be crosschecked with other information ranging from age and gender to whether the person happened to have access to pathogens that could be slipped into the food supply.

For homeland security, this unified store of data could answer questions law-enforcement officials didn't know to ask. As for the Big Brother-ness of all this information collection, Warren McFarlan, a professor at the Harvard Business School, says he'd "be happy to give up some privacy if there's something for me in return." McFarlan says he'd like to have all of his health information aggregated in case something were to happen to him while traveling.

Under this scenario, information from a bevy of agencies ranging from the FBI to the Department of Defense to the Department of Agriculture would be consolidated in one data warehouse to present a composite of information. All the agencies would need common data definitions for items such as name, location and biometric information so the composite would be consistent. Business-intelligence software would highlight trends and analyze the data.

Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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