The federal departments of Homeland Security and Justice recently agreed on a global data-sharing standard that could spur interoperability throughout the public safety community and beyond.

The move limits proliferation of incompatible XML data models -- which translate data into information that can be shared among multiple IT systems -- and opens the door to greater cooperation among law enforcement, firefighters, health organizations and others. The DHS and DOJ also tied use of the new standard -- known as the Global Justice XML Data Model (GJXDM) -- to federal grants for information exchange projects in fiscal 2005, so states and localities are challenged with getting up to speed on the promising data-sharing model.

Some have already. The DOJ's Office of Justice Programs (OJP) has tallied at least 50 fully implemented extensible markup language (XML) applications in the government justice and public safety realm thus far, including Amber Alert, possibly the most noteworthy example. That number could stretch to 200 or more when newer, developing implementations are considered.

That's exciting to those who see XML as a silver bullet for interoperability among disparate communications systems. The XML thrust received a big boost in February with the announcement that the DHS and the DOJ will use the GJXDM for interoperability.

A source from the OJP said the agency is "quite happy" about XML's progress, while acknowledging it's a long-term project that will take years to implement.

"The best news about this model is that there's no secret to duplicating its success," said Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Director Domingo Herraiz. "We're receiving reports from numerous states on improved information sharing and the cost of efficiency of implementation." Herraiz said state and local governments should be excited about GJXDM's future. "The national cost savings alone would be in the billions, and the speed by which information could be shared is phenomenal."

Over the past three years, the BJA, working with the National Governors Association (NGA), allocated $17 million to support state and local implementation efforts. Other funding sources that have contributed to state and local GJXDM development are the Edward Byrne Formula Grant, the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant program, the Justice Assistance Grant, the National Criminal History Improvement Program, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the DHS.

Catherine Plummer, a justice information specialist at the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics (SEARCH), said adoption of the GJXDM by federal agencies and the requirement of the GJXDM conformance for receipt of grants will have a big impact on state and local governments.

"Whether states and locals have any clue what we're talking about is a different issue. But they are slowly becoming aware that this is a condition of their grants if they're going to use XML," Plummer said. "If they are going to do any kind of information exchange development, those changes have to be GJXDM-conformant."

The new GJXDM standard is just what the doctor ordered in terms of the guidance states and locals have needed to move forward on interoperability.

"From a practitioner standpoint and from NLETS [National Law Enforcement Telecommunication System] as an organization, it's been a key to our success in promoting information sharing because there is this standard now that we can look to, use and implant," said Bonnie Locke, NLETS administration director.

Locke credited the OJP with bringing practitioners from state and local governments, and the private sector, together for meetings to work on the model. She described the meetings as ugly, long and drawn out. "I sat in on one of the early meetings in Atlanta a couple of years ago," she said. "Literally they sat in a room arguing about what would go into the model, what something would be called. It was amazing. They'd be arguing about [how to describe] eye and hair

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor