SaaS applications level the information sharing field

     From the business world to government and public safety, hosted software solutions are changing the paradigm for how software is purchased and used. Hosted software solutions, otherwise known as Software as a Service (SaaS), offer a level of flexibility and economy with which commercially licensed, internally operated software systems can't compete.

     SaaS is a software application delivery model where a vendor develops a Web-native application and hosts and operates (either independently or through a third party) the application for use by its customers over the Internet. Customers pay not for owning the software itself but for using it.

     The main benefit here is that while internally operated software requires a huge initial investment for installation and usually involves a level of complexity which demands extensive IT support, SaaS models allow the user to pay as they go without any of the hassles associated with installation or maintenance. All the user needs is Web access to have a range of sophisticated technologies at his fingertips.

     While many of the original SaaS applications were basic office tools (i.e. accounting and document sharing programs), today's generation of SaaS applications offer a range of sophisticated enterprise tools that allow for an unprecedented level of data capture, management and sharing.

     SaaS applications offer a solution to many of the hang-ups associated with the implementation of IT systems for public sector entities. Government agencies are much more conservative when it comes to making IT purchasing decisions and are notoriously slow when it comes to installation and implementation of new technologies. It is an ironic truth that a recurring theme within the public sector is that by the time a "new" technology is implemented and staff brought up to speed, the system has already become a legacy model — and a new generation of technologies with more sophisticated features are already available on the market.

     SaaS applications render installation time, costs and learning curves obsolete because the third-party vendor that hosts the software application is responsible for maintaining and updating the system. All the end-user needs in order to take full advantage of application features is an Internet connection and browser — no installation process, associated fees, or upkeep are required.

     Furthermore, the flexibility and ease-of-use of SaaS applications are what made the model attractive to the business community in the first place. Many SaaS vendors design products to be easy to use, minimizing the learning curve for even the most complex of programs.

Fusion centers and SaaS applications

     The National Information Management System (NIMS) specifies a set of processes, protocols and procedures that all first responders must use to coordinate and conduct response actions. This has fostered the birth of fusion centers designed to maximize interoperability and information sharing between emergency professionals at all levels. The architecture and infrastructure of fusion centers is much like that of SaaS applications: fusion centers include a third-party/remote server that houses and coordinates the flow of information from various law enforcement agencies within a given network.

     The principal role of fusion centers is to compile, analyze and disseminate criminal and terrorist information and intelligence. By aggregating information from disparate databases and records systems, fusion centers create a single view of information that can be used for crime trend analysis or for centralized control of dispatch in crisis scenarios.

     A major obstacle impeding data aggregation at fusion centers is disparate record-keeping methodologies for agencies within a given information sharing network. Often times, each agency has its own method for tracking and storing incident reports, making it difficult for fusion center staff to coordinate and consolidate information coming from various sources. Furthermore, differences in resources possessed by large and small agencies create a situation where not all law enforcement departments possess the infrastructure necessary to meet federal standards for information sharing.

     While larger agencies have much more sophisticated IT departments, smaller and mid-sized agencies may not have the capital and human resources to maintain the IT infrastructure necessary to comply with information sharing standards. The end result is that while major metropolitan police forces may be effectively contributing to the mission objectives of fusion centers, smaller agencies may still use dated methods to file incident reports, resulting in large gaps in the information consolidated at local fusion centers.

     The adoption of SaaS applications by law enforcement has huge potential benefits for small- and medium-sized agencies. Not only do existing SaaS applications offer agencies with limited budgets sophisticated and affordable field-reporting solutions, but they aid inter-agency information sharing efforts by creating a standard for the information flow within the network. Furthermore, SaaS vendors can make sure their solutions comply with standards set by local fusion centers to maximize compatibility and information exchange.

Benefits of SaaS applications

  • No additional hardware is needed
  • Low start-up costs
  • Add users as you go, when you need them
  • Affordable monthly payment to better manage cash flow
  • Print reports that look like your paper reports
  • Easy to set up report bundling capability

Closing the gap

     The National Incident Exchange Model (NIEM), formed through a partnership between the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal Department of Homeland Security, was created to facilitate the development of enterprise-wide information exchange standards which can be uniformly developed, centrally maintained, quickly identified and discovered, and efficiently reused. Since the implementation of NIEM, there have been a score of technology vendors offering products that claim to help law enforcement come up to speed with NIEM standards.

     However, the majority of these products have been designed for departments with large budgets capable of meeting the financial and human capital requirements associated with the installation of complex data-management systems. Additionally, the first generation of these technologies, which many law enforcement agencies are now just beginning to grasp, have become dated by new and improved next-generation systems that require further infrastructure to manage.

     The result is that large agencies clamor to stay up to speed on the most recent versions of software to ensure compatibility with federal information sharing standards and the growing technological disparity between the largest law enforcement agencies and smaller community-based police departments. This disparity inhibits intelligence analysts' ability to see the "whole picture" in terms of recognizing how terrorist and criminal networks operate across geographic expanses.

     The inability of community police departments to acquire the technologies necessary to effectively share information not only impedes their ability to perform their primary job function, but the resulting intelligence gaps pose a threat to national security.

     This is especially true considering the ability of terrorist and criminal networks to capitalize on recent advances in communications technology and transportation to carry out operations over large geographical areas. In fact, criminal networks are highly aware of the limitations of information sharing capabilities of smaller police departments, and they exploit this vulnerability to carry out a range of illicit activities.

The benefits of SaaS for law enforcement

     SaaS applications have a great deal of potential to address the needs of small community police departments to ensure they are able to participate in information sharing networks with other law enforcement agencies.

     As opposed to the large initial capital investment needed to install internally operated software systems, most SaaS applications require a monthly service fee that is much more affordable considering the limited budgets of smaller departments. Additionally, SaaS application service providers are responsible for content management and software updates, and possess the resources to ensure data is housed in a form compliant with federal standards specified under NIEM and that users have access to the most up-to-date software applications.

     That SaaS service providers provide the majority of IT support for their applications is crucial for the aims of small- and mid-sized community law enforcement agencies. A recent study conducted by Law Enforcement Technology surveyed a cross-section of law enforcement officers from both large and small agencies. It found that 45 percent did not have the resources for full-time IT support within the agency.

     Additionally, 94 percent of respondents said they would be willing to adopt technologies that allow them to share information with other law enforcement agencies at the state and federal level.

     These findings demonstrate that law enforcement personnel are willing to adopt technologies that allow them to better share information. However, many agencies do not have the resources or human capital to implement software systems that would allow them to do so.

     Recognizing the demand by a large portion of the law enforcement community for affordable, manageable technology solutions, the private sector has responded with a range of hosted software applications that comply with federal standards and are field-tested and ready for use.

     For example, BlueStreak Connect, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, recently released a SaaS-based mobile field reporting solution that provides dynamic e-forms incident reporting solutions for police officers on patrol.

     The solution streamlines incident reporting by providing a universal form accessible through mobile PCs installed in patrol vehicles. The technology walks the officer through a logical series of questions to gather the critical incident information, maps the data to the required reports, and packages the reports for delivery and approval by the officer's supervisor.

     Furthermore, the information is relayed back to the agency database and housed in BlueStreak's servers in a form compatible with NIEM standards. In effect, BlueStreak is responsible for providing the software, collecting information and ensuring the information collected is compatible with federal guidelines for information sharing.

     According to another survey conducted by Law Enforcement Technology, there is a significant demand for technologies that automate basic reporting processes for law enforcement agencies as reflected in the fact that 86 percent of law enforcement personnel surveyed spend two to three hours a day writing and filing reports, with 36 percent spending more than three hours a day on this process.

     Paul Smith, president of BlueStreak Connect, says his company's ConnectSuite was designed with the needs of small- and mid-sized law enforcement agencies in mind. "We realize that the role of smaller community police departments is crucial in the effort to combat criminal and terrorist networks," he says, "and we want to provide them with the best tools available to carry out their mission objective.

     "Our product model was designed to ensure that every officer has the best technologies at his disposal to protect the public," he explains, "and we see SaaS software applications as playing a huge role in the future of law enforcement. The way we look at it, police officers should be able to focus on protecting the public, and should not be distracted with logistical concerns associated with IT. That is our job."

SaaS applications for information sharing
  • Questionnaire-driven data collection
  • Pay by the user
  • No software to install
  • Offline capability
  • Prepopulation with user-defined routing
  • GJXDM and NIEM compliant
  • Incident Activity Dashboard

The future of SaaS

     Many law enforcement information sharing networks already exist with architectures that resemble SaaS models by incorporating third-party servers to coordinate the flow of information, such as:

  • National Crime Information Center (NCIC)
  • International Justice and Public Safety Information Sharing Network
  • Automated Fingerprint Identity System (AFIS)
  • Law Enforcement National Data Exchange Initiative (N-DEx)

     As agencies come up to speed with new technologies and mandates for information sharing among first responders, there will be greater prevalence of remote data systems coordinating the flow of information between agencies. The progression toward third-party systems controlling the flow of information is a natural one considering the number of idiosyncratic records management systems at the local, state and federal level that must be synchronized to have effective intra-agency communications.

     Dennis Duval retired as chief of police in Syracuse, New York, in 2004 after 27 years of law enforcement service. Prior to being appointed chief, he served in many positions including detective, patrol shift supervisor, deputy chief and SWAT team commander. During his time as chief, Duval drove the formation of the Central New York Information Sharing Project. Nationally recognized, the project has been spotlighted and further funded by the State of New York and U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security as a model for information sharing and inter-jurisdictional cooperation.