The Evolution of the National Information Exchange Model

What does the National Information Exchange Model mean for emergency managers?

by Paul Wormeli and Andrea Walter / August 11, 2009
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The National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) Program was launched on Feb. 28, 2005, as a partnership between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). NIEM is a federal, state, local and tribal interagency initiative that provides a foundation for seamless information exchange.

But what does that mean for emergency managers and public safety providers? At first glance, NIEM might sound like something way outside of your pay-grade or scope. So let’s take another approach.

  • If there were a way to get more information about a subject that a law enforcement officer was pulling over for a routine traffic stop, would that make the officer’s job safer?
  • If there were a way to share information about suspicious activities observed across a local, state or regional area, would that be helpful to public safety providers protecting the communities?
  • If there were critical data about an impending natural disaster that could be shared among emergency management organizations, would that not improve the safety and effectiveness of public safety providers who will respond during that incident?


In every case, information sharing can impact the efficiency and effectiveness of public safety providers. Even more importantly, it can help keep them safe on the job by providing timely, accurate and complete information. In that respect, NIEM does have the potential to affect every single public safety and emergency management organization and provider, as well as the communities and citizens they serve.

NIEM provides a framework for:

  • bringing stakeholders and communities of interest together to identify information sharing requirements in day-to-day operations and emergency situations;
  • developing standards, a common language and an online repository of documents to support information sharing;
  • providing technical tools to support the development, discovery, dissemination and reuse of information exchanges; and
  • providing training, technical assistance and implementation support services for enterprisewide information exchange.

NIEM also provides a common language for information sharing across multiple agencies and jurisdictions at federal, state, local and tribal levels. This common language includes a data dictionary of agreed-upon terms and definitions, and data component definitions in Extensible Markup Language (XML) Schema format to enable nationwide information interoperability. An XML Schema is a Web specification defining an XML document. XML is the standard language for document and message exchange over the Internet, e.g., Wants and Warrants, Rap Sheets, alerts and warning, data queries and responses, etc. NIEM includes a core data dictionary and XML Schema, and a domain-specific data dictionary and Schema for each of the following domains: emergency management, immigration, infrastructure protection, intelligence, international trade, justice and person screening.

 

NIEM’s Track Record of Progress

Since its initial implementation in 2005, NIEM experienced a rapid development phase with more than a dozen releases and numerous homeland security and justice pilot projects conducted at federal, state and local levels. The release of NIEM 2.0 in July 2007 marked a significant turning point as NIEM transitioned from a pilot project to an operational program. This change brought new opportunities and challenges as federal, state, and local jurisdictions and agencies nationwide began aggressive programs to adopt and use NIEM.

Adoption and use are the litmus test for NIEM’s success, and NIEM’s first year as an operational program has seen widespread adoption. In support of the National Strategy for Information Sharing, the program manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE) adopted NIEM as the data layer standard within the Common Terrorism Information Sharing Standards program. NIEM is the basis for operational exchanges in the Terrorist Watchlist Person Data Exchange Standard.

Both the DHS and DOJ have adopted NIEM. The DHS incorporated NIEM into its enterprise architecture and established a comprehensive program to ensure adoption and transition of its information-sharing systems to NIEM. All of the major mission components within the DHS are using NIEM or preparing to use NIEM in the next six to 12 months.  The DOJ Law Enforcement Information Sharing Program (LEISP) Logical Entity Exchange Specifications (formerly the LEISP Exchange Specifications) includes a set of NIEM-conformant components that are being used for many law enforcement information exchanges at the federal, tribal, state and local levels, including the FBI Law Enforcement National Data Exchange (N-DEx) system. The FBI also selected NIEM for its Sentinel case management system and plans to migrate exchanges for the National Crime Information Center nationwide information system to NIEM. The N-DEx system is expected to comprise more than 200,000 users engaged in NIEM-based exchanges.

While federal NIEM adoption has exceeded expectations, the rate of NIEM adoption at the tribal, state and local levels has been no less impressive. Many states and local governments have initiated programs to assess and adopt NIEM for information exchange not only within law enforcement, public safety and antiterrorism operations, but also for transportation, health and human services, and education. The Florida Law Enforcement eXchange, the Texas Path to NIEM, the Consortium for the Exchange of Criminal Justice Technology (CONNECT), New York City’s Correction and Health and Human Services initiatives, and state fusion center developments are just a few examples of the vast number of state and local initiatives assessing NIEM and developing NIEM exchanges. (Find out more information about some of these NIEM-related projects at www.niem.gov.)

NIEM Information Exchange Packages (IEPs) are the foundation of NIEM’s business value as an enabler for nationwide information interoperability and sharing. Broad adoption with collaborative sharing of operational experiences, best practices, lessons learned, IEP Documentation (IEPD) reuse and cooperative development IEPDs for nationwide information exchange are critical to achieving the full potential of NIEM. Since the release of NIEM 2.0, there has been a groundswell of IEPD development. There are now more than 70 NIEM IEPDs registered in the Global Justice XML Data Model/NIEM IEPD Clearinghouse. In addition, the DHS has more than 50 IEPDs in development, some of which are currently operational.

NIEM serves as an enabler and a catalyst for cooperative development of IEPDs. One of the most successful NIEM cooperative developments was the Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) IEPD. A SAR documents the suspicious behavior that may indicate intelligence gathering or pre-operational planning related to terrorism, criminal activity, espionage or other illicit activity. Examples include: surveillance, photography of facilities, site breach, cyber-attacks, possible testing of security, unauthorized attempts to obtain precursor chemicals/agents or toxic materials, or other unusual behavior. The SAR IEPD development was a cooperative effort involving 11 federal agencies, nine state agencies, five local agencies and nine nonprofit associations; this development initiative was also exposed to more than 200 private industry firms with active participation from more than 15 companies. In recognition of the success of the SAR development, the SAR program was selected as a finalist by The American Council for Technology for its 2008 Intergovernmental Solutions Awards.

The PM-ISE is leading the SAR Operational Study Pilot involving fusion centers in three states: Virginia, New York and Florida. Based on findings from the Support and Implementation Project, sponsored by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, PM-ISE has approved an expansion of the SAR Operational Study to include up to nine major cities, using the ISE-SAR Functional Standard and the NIEM SAR IEPD as its data model.

As more agencies initiate NIEM programs, keeping pace with the demands for NIEM training and technical support have been a major challenge. The NIEM Program Management Office (PMO) has sponsored more than 20 training events in the past year. The training program has been totally revamped to better meet NIEM stakeholder needs, and online delivery options are being developed to streamline and expedite the training process. The National Information Sharing Standards NIEM Knowledge Base and Helpdesk have expanded capabilities to meet the increasing need for NIEM technical support, including deciphering and relaying conformance issues from the new NIEM User Guide. The team is well versed in using the full set of NIEM tools, from the Schema Subset Generation Tool all the way down to the Mapping and Migration tool set.

Paul Wormeli is executive director of the IJIS Institute.  Andrea Walteris communications specialist at the IJIS Institute.