Linux In Government: Interoperability

Linux Journal welcomes government Open Source expert Tom Adelstein as our newest web columnist. In his first column, Tom covers some notable government IT success stories.

Since August 2003, we have seen significant Linux adoption taking place within many sectors of the US federal government. Major accomplishments include deployment of a large interoperable database project using LAMP, Justice Department XML standards, establishment of a Government Open Source Community sponsored by the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA), and organization of the Government Open Code Collaborative.

While many other projects and initiatives exist, this article focuses primarily on standards-based thrusts into cooperation among states and local governments.

Interoperability - A Homeland Security Priority

Secretary Tom Ridge has said that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "must create new ways to share information and intelligence both vertically, between governments, and horizontally, across agencies and jurisdictions." Unfortunately, the efforts of DHS have fallen far short of expectations. Secretary Ridge has run into the same problems others have encountered on the way to implementing standards-based IT solutions: putting the technology together and overcoming fiefdoms.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to observe technology in a lab at the University of North Texas operated by Dr. William Moen. Dr. Moen proved Linux and standards-based Z3950 technology could provide a huge start in solving the problems of Homeland Security's needs. While DHS struggles with getting the States to cooperate, Dr. Moen's LAMP project provides some keys to rapid deployment of interoperable document stores and databases.

I also spoke with Kevin Marsh of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission about the same interoperability project I saw at UNT, called the Library of Texas. If you have an interest in seeing how an interoperable government web services system works, go to the web site and log on as a guest. Run a search and watch the remarkable capabilities of the system.

Kevin has worked with Linux since 1994. He offered me insights into interoperability and standards rarely identified in my forays in the government sector. He pointed me to the National Information Standards Organization where I found a plethora of interoperability standards.

When I asked Kevin if the Library of Texas project offered an example of how our Government could implement interoperability under Homeland Security, he said, "yes". He then went on to say, "Achieving compliance isn't easy. The Library of Texas has over 100 libraries on-line as well as 40 commercial databases. But, we're targeting 700 libraries to become part of the network. You may achieve compliance today, but things can change tomorrow."

Index Data of Denmark developed the software for The Library of Texas project. The Company has made the software available under the GNU General Public License (GPL). Index Data runs an open-source consultancy specializing in networked information retrieval.

Justice Department XML Standards

As Kevin Marsh and I discussed the Z3950 standards used in the Library Sciences he mentioned that interoperability for Homeland Security would require a different database library and definitions. This prompted me to mention Justice XML.

The site states:

What began in March 2001 as a reconciliation of data definitions evolved into a broad two-year endeavor to develop an XML-based framework that would enable the entire justice and public safety community to effectively share information at all levels - laying the foundation for local, state, and national justice interoperability.

Developed by Global and OJP, the GJXDM is an object-oriented data model comprised of a well-defined vocabulary of approximately 2,500 stable data objects, or reusable components, that facilitate the exchange and reuse of information from multiple sources and multiple applications.

While the Department of Justice has worked closely with state and local governments to create standards that can help protect the US, achieving compliance isn't easy. Chris Turrentine of ETS Development can explain why. Chris serves as a consultant to the Automated System Project (ASP) of the University of Southern Mississppi (see the entry on The Office of Justice Programs describes ASP as establishing:

an information sharing network among county, local, and state agencies within three coastal counties in the state of Mississippi. The Project will provide a jail management, computer-aided dispatch, case management, and records management software suite to these agencies. Once the applications and databases are integrated, a mobile data infrastructure will be deployed for first responders to access information from laptops in the field.

According to Chris Turrentine, "the States say they want to implement Justice XML, but few have followed through." He also told me, "one State agency head said that they wouldn't share their database because they say it's their citizens' data. That's the prevailing sentiment."

Chris fought in the first Gulf War and recently added his secure portal, Quick Port, to the community of open-source applications licensed under GPL. We discussed his concern about the attitudes that exist with local government. The States don't really want to comply. They won't comply. We're going to need a national mandate to have them comply.

State and local governments follow what we might call fiefdoms or autonomous computing. The States maintain independent systems that do not trust each other. These systems hold mission-critical data such as warrants databases, directories of prison populations, and databases of known terrorists. The fiefdoms can work together under Linux like the Z3950 systems deployed by the Library of Texas.

Under the Z3950 model, each fiefdom can maintain the data in its own pond. The Z3950 Linux servers in the system deployed by Index Data in Texas can also provide interoperability without creating a single huge database. But, the heads of the fifedoms simply refuse to cooperate. That puts you and me at risk.

I recently spoke to the head of a court probation system in one of the ten largest districts in the country. She is the chief court officer. When I discussed interoperability with her, I thought she was going to go bonkers.

Her main concern dealt with the civil rights of the criminals. She said, "the Federal government has no right to violate the rights of state criminals by listing them in some database. It's like Big Brother watching everything we do. People might move to another location and they'd always have this mark against them. I'm dead set against connecting databases."

Unfortunately, I have heard this kind of argument many times. If that argument doesn't work, invariably, the last justification has something to do with the procurement process. People in state and local government consistently fall back on the argument that vendors don't provide the products they need to comply.



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Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

>It is interesting how the author so quickly dismisses the civil rights argument, as if cost savings and streamlined administration override all other considerations.<

It may seem like I dismissed the civil rights issue, in fact, I didn't dismiss it at all. I found the remarks of the chief court officer confusing since all the data she objected to being in a data base already was in one. It was the same data base she accessed daily to do her job.

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

Given that Gov. Arnold Swarzenegger has initiated an effort to reform and reorganize government, has Tom or anyone else gotten in contact with the governor or any of his administration in regard to these issues? Certainly, if the state of California took a leadership position on this issue, it could go a very long way toward bringing other state and local entities into the effort.

Paul Hubert

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

Data integration is needed at the federal level to build the DHS database for ALL citizens and visitors of the US. One secure LDAP database should then be "federated" out to the states/county/local government to prevent re-inventing the wheel. This must happen...

The data sharing is important; however, its the Open Source Applications that could save the County billions... Why does each County govenment spend millions of dollors on applications to manage criminal/civil/juvinial/traffic... applications that are the same applications for thousands of Counties across the County...One open source application base should be used for the Core Service.

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

It is interesting how the author so quickly dismisses the civil rights argument, as if cost savings and streamlined administration override all other considerations.

The problem with linking so many gov't databases is the lack of oversight and accountability. For example, the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) database. Once you're in, you're in and there is no getting out. What gets you in -- almost anything "...or have been identified with an offense" -- which includes a heck of a lot more than getting arrested and convicted.

Of course, the NCIC is exempted from the Privacy Act. You are not allowed to see your record, or check it for accuracy. And please don't tell me how it is access controlled. I've seen LEOs browse for data on girlfriends, people they just met, etc.

There is no official method for validating data, getting something corrected or getting it removed, though there is a legal requirement for doing so.

Many people (check out the links at the bottom of the page linked above) are concerned about this issue and don't want to see the like repeated with other database systems.

So, until there are checks and balances in place to protect the citizens, any "federal mandate" on sharing information should be thrown back in the face of the DHS. Citizen privacy and civil rights far outweigh any concerns about gov't efficiency.

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

The author clearly indicated that the databases would remain in the ponds and fifedoms of the owners while creating interoperability. In government we call this federated. NCIC is a database not a method for searching and retrieving from distributed databases.

Your argument lacks substance.

Do you have some bone to pick?

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

The NCIC isn't a database, it is a meta-database that is built from a combination of "federated" databases like local/state arrest records and others combined with Federal data.

It is an example of what could happen if all the distributed databases become remotely indexable and searchable without having to go through the individual jurisdiction's access process.

What worries me is having that vast amount of indexed information in the hands of the same people who brought us the PATRIOT Act, no-knock search warrants and "secret" laws.

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

Consider 9/11. In the end it was non-interoperability of Government agencies that allowed that to happen. The concern here is not government efficiency but the cost of government inefficiency, mainly innocent human lives. Make no mistake we are at war and not with the DHS. How much would those checks and balances be worth to us if someone we care about died in a scenario like 9/11, that could have been prevented if the DHS had access to the necessary information. Not much I would wager.

By the way, I work in local government and I think most people would be surprised at how much of this information is pubic record anyway.

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

This is the type of thinking that scares me -- and you're in government.

"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security." - Benjamin Franklin

How much will those checks and balances mean to us in the situation where someone we care about is held indefinately, in secret, without trial or charges; or had their house searched, and everything from their bank records to their library records pilfered without so much as a "by your leave" or even a subpeona.

You may live in fear of another 9/11-style attack, I have my own fears. They involve a government with too many unchecked, unbalanced powers and people who think like you. Go tell "9/11" to the art professor at the Univ. of Buffalo, being investigated under the PATRIOT act as a "bioterrorist".

In short, the Government and people with attitudes like you worry me far more than any terrorist ever will.

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

Quote Benjamin Franklin all you want, but you're just as full of disinformation as Microsoft.

You argue about Liberty and the constitution and then complain about the right to bear arms. Individual liberty has no place in a world where peolpe yell God is Great while they sever your head.

During times of war --and this is a religious war and war just the same -- you give up some rights.

If you don't want the protection, then go live some place else. I want the protection.

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

What disinformation? I wanted to know why the author of the original article blew off the civil liberties concers so quickly, then listed some of my concens with examples of current issues.

I never brought up the 2nd Amendment, and have *never* complained about the Right to Bear Arms -- I am a fervent supporter.

And as far as this being a war goes -- the War on Terrorism is no more a real "war" than the War on Drugs. The Constitution grants the power to Declare War to the Congress. They have done so seven times in the history of this Nation. Now isn't one of those times. "War" has not been declared by Congress, only a limited authorization of force under the War Powers Act. Big difference. Individual liberty ALWAYS has a place in this country -- it is one of the foundations of our nation.

Anyway, we are WAY off topic. Sorry to all. Efficiency and open data formats are a very good thing, it is just that there are also concerns by the States of data misuse and violation of State laws. These things must be addressed before a project of this sort will see its full realization.

Re: Linux In Government: Interoperability

Anonymous's picture

ok.. PUBLIC record. Dammit.