Reprinted with permission from the May 2005 issue of Government Technology's Public CIO
Criminal justice leaders have long envisioned how technology can expand and improve information sharing, only to be frustrated in their efforts. Now the justice community has extensible markup language (XML) in its sights, which will allow police, prosecutors, court clerks, judges and corrections officials to exchange information in a timely manner without breaking the bank.
Within the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Office of Justice Programs put together a task force of 32 federal, state, local and international organizations to design an XML standard specifically for criminal justice.
Their hard work seems to be paying off -- funds are beginning to flow toward pilot projects, and more than 50 justice information-sharing projects now use XML.
In February, the National Governors Association awarded six states -- Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- each a $50,000 grant to run pilots to improve existing justice systems.
Also in February, the U.S. departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced a new partnership encouraging use of XML throughout federal, state and local government. Government officials believe this is a major step in broadening how the public sector uses XML standards, especially the Global Justice XML Data Model (Global JXDM) being developed by the DOJ.
XML is a programming language that marks the meaning of content within a document or form. Unlike another markup language known as HTML, which has to do with the appearance of documents and forms on the Web, XML specifies what the information is with tags that identify categories of information.
These categories are called objects and consist of tagged data elements. A "person" object may contain elements that are physical descriptors (eye and hair color, weight, height, etc.), biometric descriptors (DNA, fingerprints) and social descriptors (marital status, occupation). A vehicle object would contain other types of elements, such as make, model, registration number or title. XML can then address the relationship between the objects (Is the person the owner of the vehicle?).
The key to XML is that objects have their own vocabulary -- described in a data dictionary -- making it possible to identify and exchange the information objects from one computer to another without having to use the same operating systems or application software.
Because the justice community is riddled with incompatible legacy systems, it has embraced XML as a basis for quick and inexpensive document exchange. For the first time, various justice and public safety agencies can develop a common vocabulary so documents and information can be exchanged quickly and efficiently.
Global Justice XML Data Model
Global JXDM allows different agencies to organize a justice-based data dictionary within their separate databases, which identifies content and gives it meaning. Besides the dictionary, Global JXDM is also a data model that defines structures and a repository of reusable software components.
By making the standard independent of vendors, operating systems, storage media and applications, JXDM is fast emerging as a key technology for assisting how criminal and judicial organizations exchange information.
Despite all the kudos XML has received, problems with the standard lurk beneath the surface. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2002 warned that XML lacks maturity because of the scarcity of public-sector leadership for implementing it. While technical standards, such as the Global JDXM, are in place, the GAO determined that mature business standards necessary to make XML ready for extensive use are lacking. For example, there are no standards for identifying potential business partners for transactions, exchanging precise technical information about the nature of proposed transactions and executing transactions in