Achieving interoperability through software technology

     After investigating a homicide for four years, Det. Sgt. Mike Brower had run out of leads. His luck changed, however, when the Utah County Sheriff's Office became part of a data sharing system connecting 14 different public safety agencies throughout northern Utah.

     Using a system that provided access to the databases of several local jurisdictions, the Utah County Sheriff's Office was able to obtain thousands of names and incident reports. While searching through the records of nearby Orem Police Department, Brower uncovered information that proved crucial to his investigation.

     "It was just a very small report, but it gave us information on where our main suspect could be located," he says. "Essentially, it solved the case for us. Without that little piece of information, we may have still been spinning our wheels."

Expanding the definition of interoperability
     Interoperability, or the ability of emergency responders to work together, has grown in importance since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Other recent events, like the communications challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, have continued to reinforce the need for interoperability within local and state agencies.

     "Better information would have been an optimal weapon against Katrina," the bipartisan congressional committee assigned to investigate Hurricane Katrina wrote in a February 2006 report. "Information sent to the right people at the right place at the right time. Information moved within agencies, across departments and between jurisdictions of government as well."

     To work together in the 21st century, agencies must expand their concept of interoperability beyond radio communications to include the use of data management software systems. An integrated data system is essential to making fully informed decisions and achieving the goal of total interoperability.

     The need for interoperability goes beyond preparing for natural disasters or terrorist attacks, however. Communicating and sharing data with other agencies on a daily basis is vital to helping public safety personnel identify crime trends and prevention strategies.

     "Building radio towers and buying handheld radios will get an agency through a crisis, but what about day-to-day operations?" poses Ben Godfrey, a research and design manager for Spillman Technologies, located in Salt Lake City, Utah. "A detective won't switch to the interoperable radio channel for a routine investigation. If, however, the data is available through a user-friendly data sharing tool, the officer is more likely to find the right information."

Reaping the daily rewards of expanded data
     Access to a robust data sharing system can influence the outcome of even routine events. For example, a police officer on patrol may notice a speeding car and pull over the suspect. After obtaining the suspect's driver's license, the officer can run a query of the suspect's name through the data sharing program on his laptop computer. The officer then receives a list of possible matching records from other neighboring and cross-jurisdictional agencies.

     Without a data sharing system, the officer would only be able to view records from his own jurisdiction or from a single database and would likely miss related arrests or warrants.

     In Utah County, a data sharing system implemented two years ago continues to help the sheriff's office crack down on individual offenses, Lt. Dave Snyder says. It also has helped the agency identify crime trends, like a theft ring targeting major cities throughout the state.

     The agency had long suspected that so-called "frequent flyers" in the Utah County jail were committing crimes across the state, he says. Until his agency became part of a data sharing system, however, they had no idea how widespread the issue was.

     "The same people who are performing the burglaries in Davis County also are performing burglaries down in Provo, and then they're selling that stolen property down in St. George," Snyder explains.

     Snyder says officers searched the records database by Social Security Number to see how many people had records at both the sheriff's office and a local city's police department. More than 35,000 people had been arrested in both jurisdictions, he says.

     "We knew it was a problem," Snyder says. "We didn't have any idea it was to that extent."

     Eventually, Snyder says, the Utah County Sheriff's Office will be part of an extended data sharing system that will run along Interstate 15 for 350 miles, stretching from northern Utah to just north of Las Vegas.

Understanding data sharing differences
     Like the Utah County Sheriff's Office, most agencies have found that sharing data is a crucial way to serve their communities and prepare for future incidents. More than two-thirds of the nation's law enforcement and emergency response teams have developed some capacity for interoperability, according to a 2006 Department of Homeland Security survey.

     Not all data sharing systems are created equally, however.

     Data sharing systems store data in one of two ways. Some systems keep information in a central repository or "data warehouse." In a data warehouse system, each agency exports information periodically to a central repository.

     The benefit of a data warehouse system, Godfrey says, is that all agencies can search the information as needed. A significant drawback is that the warehouse updates information only sporadically, leaving agencies with data that could be outdated.

     "Officers in the field need to have access to current information," he says. "It is not enough to know that a person had a warrant last week; they need to know if the person has a warrant right now."

     Today, most agencies prefer a "live query" system that allows multiple users to simultaneously connect to the same database and work with the exact same set of information. In a live query system, the database operates in real time, recording the day-to-day operations of an agency as they occur and continuously updating data.

     In addition to providing real-time data, a successful data sharing system also should allow staff to see connections between names, property and addresses in the database. Godfrey says a searchable database means little if it doesn't provide agency personnel with related information on incidents, suspects, warrants and charges.

     "Finding out that a neighboring agency has a record is a good start to data sharing, but it is not enough. Agencies need tools that allow them to see relationships," he says. "These relationships turn data into knowledge, and that is the real objective."

     Agencies should look for a software system that visually displays the relationships between data that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to see. For example, an officer using such a software system might enter a suspect's name, only to be alerted that the suspect has failed to pay outstanding fines.

Preserving agency preferences
     Customization is another problem agencies face when trying to implement a shared system. Most agencies have their own preferences for organizing data, coding information and setting up system functions. They may be reluctant to join a collective data sharing system if they have to relinquish control over their customized features.

     Some data sharing systems, however, allow each agency to retain preferences while participating in a shared system. As a result, each participating agency can keep its unique terms and features and still benefit from increased access to data and improved communication.

     Systems that retain an agency's preferences reduce the need for extensive training and help an agency's staff feel comfortable using the new technology. According to Godfrey, if a system is too difficult to understand, or if it requires the staff to learn a new interface, they may be reluctant to use it. "When it comes to software usability, consistency is key," he says.

     For most agencies, the overriding concern when implementing a data sharing system is security. Granting multiple agencies access to sensitive data requires that additional security measures be established in order to protect the integrity of information and the system.

     A data sharing system should come equipped with reliable security measures to prevent unauthorized individuals from tampering with data, sabotaging or crashing the system, or accessing certain records.

     "Reliability is a must," Snyder says. "If you have (multiple) agencies on a system and a system crashes, you're dead in the water."

     One common form of securing data is through user privileges. Granting only select users access to data helps protect sensitive information. Encryption adds another layer of security. Encrypting data before it is passed between two systems helps prevent valuable information from being lost or stolen.

     To meet the demands of law enforcement in the 21st century, an agency must have the ability to communicate and share information on demand. A data sharing system that is selected carefully, with an eye toward usability and security, can help an agency serve its community for years to come.

Lynze Wardle is a marketing writer for Spillman Technologies, a public safety software provider headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. Spillman has been delivering reliable data sharing solutions for more than 25 years.