Completing the Data Puzzle

Linking disparate information systems gives Florida cops access to statewide data.

by / November 6, 2006
"Connecting the dots" became a catch phrase after 9/11, when it became apparent that if pieces of information about several of the hijackers had been strung together, the attacks might have been prevented.

In Florida, eager efforts to connect the dots began when law enforcement agencies realized the Florida Information Crime Center -- a state database that provides arrest and warrant information -- was not covering all the bases.

Even though all officers can access that statewide resource from their squad car laptops, when they encounter individuals who act suspiciously but not illegally, they document these behaviors in a written field interview report, which isn't usually shared with other jurisdictions or even within a jurisdiction. Sharing this information, along with pawnshop sales, vehicle accident reports and other incident reports, was the impetus for developing regional information sharing systems.

In 2003, the University of Central Florida launched the Florida Integrated Network for Data Exchange and Retrieval (FINDER), a system that allows more than 100 police and sheriff's offices, and other agencies in the region, to share critical crime data.

Shortly thereafter, Tampa, Pensacola and Jacksonville developed regional systems similar to FINDER to share information that normally wasn't distributed among counties.

All four systems, however, were purchased individually and work differently.

Pensacola uses SmartCOP software, developed by CTS, a local vendor. Tampa deployed CopLink, from the Tucson, Ariz.-based Knowledge Computing Corporation. Jacksonville implemented the Law Enforcement Information Exchange (LinX), a system developed and largely funded by the U.S. Navy, while the other systems are mostly subsidized by federal homeland security grants.

Though the separate systems all work well, they don't "talk" to each other.

In 2005, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) sought to develop a statewide system for cross-jurisdiction data sharing among its seven regions. But the FDLE couldn't go to the creators of the four existing regional systems and ask them to start over. So the FDLE set out to develop new interoperable information systems that would serve the state's three remaining regions and the agency itself, and eventually link to the other four regional systems, creating a statewide data-sharing platform.

Justice XML Compliant
The project -- dubbed FLEX, or Florida Law Enforcement Exchange -- will be deployed in three phases. Phase one, which is now complete, was designed to develop similar data nomenclature across all seven regions. Phase two, which was in the procurement stage as of August 2006, will outfit the three new regional projects with a common architecture (i.e., servers) that will allow them to communicate.

Phase three will implement an analytical visualization application to sift through the information and develop leads for investigators. The key to the project, however, may be the systems' compliance to the Global Justice XML Data Model, which will allow the exchange of information statewide. The whole operation is scheduled to be completed by spring 2007.

"It started with regional projects, and not a lot of coordination between the projects," said Ken Tucker, deputy commissioner of the FDLE, noting that's when the FDLE stepped in. "We decided we needed to end up with something. In other words, you should be able to do a single point of inquiry and check all these systems out there."

The seven regions weren't exactly strangers to one another, having worked together on the state's Domestic Security Task Force; which made cooperating on FLEX much easier, Tucker said.

"We built a lot of our response plans together as it relates to our terrorism preparedness efforts," he said. "It didn't start out easy, but it's a logical progression now."

So when the FDLE went to the four regions that developed the first systems and asked to them to comply with the state project, it wasn't like pulling teeth.

"Everyone was used to working together, and we're not trying to tell them, 'You'll use this piece of software or this computer.' We're just saying it has to meet certain Global XML criteria," Tucker said. "We've actually sat down with everybody and agreed on the data fields [nomenclature] that we want every system to use."

Phase one involved getting all regions on the same page in terms of the language used in police reports. "There are several different [systems], and to be honest, it had gotten so far that we realized we needed to weigh in and bring everybody together. There was no way to go back and tell everybody, 'Throw away what you've got, and here's what you're going to use,'" Tucker said. "So from that point, the goal was let's look at it for consistency in data mapping [and] Global XML, and the next step is to get each region sharing information."

Final Piece of the Puzzle
When the FLEX system is complete, it will connect the disparate systems so a CopLink system can talk to a SmartCOP system without a hitch, said Mark Zadra, chief of investigations at FDLE's Office of Statewide Intelligence, adding that FLEX will give Florida law enforcement authorities the final piece of the puzzle in information sharing.

"Our problem is our pieces of the puzzle are scattered all over the country, maybe internationally," Zadra said. "We don't know how many of them there are, and we don't know what it is we're trying to build and what the picture is. So if we don't have systems to allow us to access the puzzle pieces, then we're very much behind the curve.

"That's what FLEX is really trying to do," Zadra continued. "With FLEX, we'll connect all the applications so that if I'm a CopLink user in Tampa, I can check the Jacksonville region or statewide. That query leaves CopLink through FLEX architecture, hits the LinX system in Jacksonville, brings the data back and displays it in its native applications."

The whole system will consist of eight servers or nodes -- one for each of the seven regions and one for the FDLE -- and each will warehouse data. Each region will decide what data to warehouse, but all data will be accessible statewide to law enforcement personnel with proper clearance.

"If I was sitting here at the state node and I wanted to do a query on Ken Tucker, I could send out a query and it would hit all eight of those nodes and come back with any data on Ken Tucker," Tucker said.

He added that an off-the-shelf answer to connecting all eight nodes doesn't exist, and that the FLEX system will probably enlist the services of a data-integrator company partnered with an existing software developer.

"It's not like you can just make a phone call and say, 'I want to put this FLEX system in place,'" Tucker said. "We're building it as we go."

Tucker said eventually there will be off-the-shelf packages that will enable law enforcement to connect the dots.

"Of all the law enforcement data out there, probably about 80 percent of it is not in a sharable format. It's contained within their closed, local applications," Tucker said. "So when you look at that 80 percent of what might potentially put us on to a terrorist plot, it's going to help put the pieces of the puzzle together."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor