How effective data integration simplifies a complex ecosystem
Renaissance philosopher Sir Francis Bacon once famously opined that “knowledge is power.” It’s difficult to argue against this simple notion. Nevertheless, it does generate an important question: how is knowledge gained? The equally simple answer is that knowledge largely derives from an adequate supply of relevant information that can be parsed and contextualized to inform decision-making.
While these may represent simple concepts, gaining knowledge and generating the required information often are anything but simple in the public-safety/justice ecosystem, given its vastness and complexity. The environment consists of the following major elements:
- Emergency communications, i.e., the 911 system;
- Law enforcement;
- Courts; and
- Corrections, which includes jails, prisons and community supervision agencies, i.e., probation, parole, pretrial supervision.
Each of these elements requires a unique information set. Let’s briefly examine each.
Emergency communications. Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and 911 call-handling systems provide information about an incident that enables telecommunicators to determine and dispatch the appropriate response, and to provide vital situational awareness.
For example, if the incident involves domestic violence, it would be good for the responding officers to know whether the location has a history of such incidents or is the address of a known offender. A next-generation 911 (NG911) system might supplement this intelligence by providing images and video. This information is useful to telecommunicators and responding officers, as well as investigators and prosecutors.
Law enforcement. This is the investigative phase. Information that comes into play at this phase includes incident data from the 911 system, police reports, search warrants, evidence, witness statements, fingerprint identifications and preliminary charges.
Systems in play at this phase include records-management systems (RMS), intelligence databases, state message switch/hotfiles and digital evidence management systems (sometimes referred to as DEMS).
Prosecutors. This is the charging phase, although prosecutors’ offices also will rely on their own investigators to continue gathering information. Information that serves as input into this phase includes police reports, evidence and grand jury deliberations—all of which enable prosecutors to determine what, if any, formal charges should be filed, and to subsequently recommend sentences if the prosecution leads to a conviction.
The outputs of prosecutors’ information processing will include indictments and other charging instruments, and often warrant requests.
Systems in play at this phase include RMS, DEMS and case management systems (CMS).
Courts. This is the adjudication phase. The clerk of a court generally is tasked as the keeper of the official court record, or docket. The clerk’s CMS stores all court filings, orders and notices. Clerks also may hold digital evidence and copies of information on the defendant, including prior convictions and probation status, and even driver’s record history. Collectively, this information helps to determine whether a bond should be granted, and then at trial whether the accused should be convicted and, if so, what sentence is appropriate.
Systems in play at this phase include CMS, JMS, DEMS, statewide computerized criminal history (CCH) and often a state driver’s record file held by a department of transportation or division/bureau of motor vehicles.
Corrections. This is the supervision phase. At case disposition, the courts will provide information to update the criminal-history repository and share disposition and sentence orders with law enforcement, departments of corrections, individual jails and prisons, probation officers, victims and, in some cases, the outside medical community.
Systems in play at this phase include jail or offender management systems (JMS, OMS), and multimodal biometric identification systems.
At every stage, the administration of justice falls on the desk of a decision-maker who relies on information from many sources. A lot can go wrong throughout the ecosystem and this complex workflow, when information gaps occur.
Let’s consider a bond hearing for a domestic violence case as an example. The presiding judge has a wealth of information about the alleged incident and the suspect—except one very important piece of information is missing, which is that the suspect has a history of domestic violence, including prior convictions.
Lacking this information, the judge releases the suspect on bond, or sets the bond too low. Either event is a bad outcome, because they put the suspect back on the street and back into a volatile situation.
Unfortunately, such information gaps occur far too often.
What to Do
These information gaps because of the generally siloed nature of the organizations that exist at each phase of the ecosystem and the communications systems that they utilize. Silos emerge naturally – each agency has its own specific statutory mission, and the systems they procure must first and foremost support that mission. This is not a problem by itself.
While every one of those systems builds interfaces into and out of the application, each individual interface is developed on its own—in a vacuum, to an extent—without seeing the larger picture of information flow that we have (partially) described above. That is a problem—and historically, how implementations have occurred in the public safety/justice ecosystem.
For all aspects of the ecosystem to perform optimally, information must be shared quickly and seamlessly between all elements. This is best fostered by taking a step back from an individual interface and considering the full picture of information flow throughout the ecosystem.
Ideally, the data sharing would occur automatically from one system to another, and transactionally—i.e., data is shared at the time a specific business event or user action is completed. As compared with batch interfaces of nightly accumulated updates, transactional data integration shortens the timeline.
In addition, when exchanges are built with a response message to convey the results back to the sender, it creates a feedback loop that reduces the chance for error and slashes the time it takes to correct an error. When ecosystem-side integration is done right, information does not fall through the cracks, as the prior-conviction information did in the bond-proceeding example above.
But that occurs far too infrequently, because organizations at each phase of the workflow are unable to think holistically or work together to craft the big picture—the “can’t see the forest for the trees” syndrome. Line staff and supervisors are too pressed for time to step out of their daily roles to consider how other organizations in the ecosystem might be able to use the information that their systems generate.
If they did, much more actionable information would flow through the ecosystem, leading to better decision-making and more-appropriate outcomes. This would, of course, free up those busy actors to do the deep thinking and background work for which they currently do not have time.
Paradoxically, the inefficiencies of information flow prevent the stakeholders from taking the time to address them. This could include ensuring that the accused receive a fair trial, that they are sentenced appropriately, and that they are remanded to the appropriate correctional facility.
So, where to start? How to get out of this cycle? Fortunately, this situation is correctable. Here’s where to start:
- Identify a champion who will convene all stakeholders across the entire ecosystem and get them to see the big picture and the value of establishing effective data integration across each of the phases identified above. This champion could be an incoming elected official like a district attorney or a presiding judge. But often, a champion coming from neutral turf can be most effective, as they are not perceived as advocating one viewpoint or portion of the process as the center; the big picture is best represented by someone who can see all stakeholders as peers that contribute to the overall goals. Enlist a facilitator who understands and has worked with every stage in the process. Such a resource will thoroughly understand the data needs of each phase and then how to meet those needs.
- Map the information flow from a high level down to each individual information exchange, e.g., between CAD systems, JMS and CMS, or between law enforcement agencies and state-level crime information centers. These data exchanges should be based on open standards—an example would be to leverage the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) standards, as well as the Health Level 7 (HL7) standards for interactions with the healthcare and mental-health communities.
- Work with SMEs to develop and manage a comprehensive workflow that results in well-conceived data integration across the entire ecosystem. In addition to developing multiple data exchanges, this will include planning and governance activities.
- Agree as a group on a consistent architecture that establishes technical aspects, such as communication protocols, security and data formats (e.g., adoption of standards such as NIEM); as well as business-architecture aspects, such as required data content, expectations for timeliness of data transmissions and predefined roles that determine fine-grained access to data.
The Iowa Criminal Justice Information System (Iowa CJIS) was established in 2007 to enable the data integration between the state’s criminal-justice organizations seamlessly, securely, and in real time. It continues to stand as a shining example of how ecosystem-wide data integration can be achieved.
The system consists of more than two dozen data exchanges that leverage standards and best practices identified by the U.S. Department of Justice Global Reference Architecture and the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM). The exchanges support the following stakeholders:
- Law-enforcement agencies – police, sheriff, state patrol and motor vehicle enforcement;
- Department of Transportation/Traffic and Criminal Software (TraCS);
- Attorney General’s Office ;
- Prosecutors’ offices (county attorneys in Iowa);
- Public defender’s offices throughout the state;
- Judicial branch/courts;
- Department of Corrections;
- Department of Public Safety systems/repositories, including:
- Sex Offender Registry
- National Instant Check Background System
- Criminal History Repository
- Hot Files/Message Switch
- Victim notification;
- Department of Transportation – Division of Motor Vehicles; and
- Voter registration/
The idea behind Iowa CJIS was to break down the silos that were preventing the free flow of information between the entities that make up the criminal-justice ecosystem in Iowa. The system architecture ensures that data is routed properly between the various data exchanges and within each data exchange, as well as to the proper jurisdiction.
The architecture also automates data-sharing workflows, ensures that they comply with all statutory and regulatory requirements and performs validations leveraging predefined business rules to ensure data integrity and accuracy. To get this done, collaboration was needed across agencies and from one jurisdiction to another.
Iowa CJIS also is a prime example of convening the community from neutral turf. The Iowa CJIS program office is housed in the state’s Department of Human Rights. Why? From a practical standpoint, it is the U.S. Department of Justice’s state administering agency (SAA) in Iowa.
Iowa CJIS originally was seeded by several Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) grants. But as the program evolved, the benefits of a governance model staffed by an agency that did not own any portion of the justice process—or any other justice data system—became indisputably evident. Iowa CJIS is governed by a board that sets up the governor and the chief justice as equals in broad oversight. That board is bolstered by an advisory committee that gives every state and local agency a voice in shaping the program and its priorities.
The result is that Iowa CJIS has increased the amount of information that is being shared across the state’s criminal-justice community exponentially, has improved the accuracy of the data being sent, has almost eliminated pertinent data being lost—a commonplace occurrence when information is shared manually—and has reduced dramatically the amount of time needed to deliver data. The system performs about 400,000 data exchanges annually.
Specific benefits to Iowa’s criminal-justice community delivered by Iowa CJIS include the following:
- Eliminates the need to rekey data at every point in the workflow—thus eliminating errors;
- Identifying numbers always are shared—person, case, incident—which improves data quality and completeness;
- Response messages are generated that close the loop on each event, ensuring reliability and engendering trust;
- Repeatable processes have built a community around collaboration;
- A culture of transparency driven by information sharing has been created; and
- The system is scalable—new endpoints can be added and new exchanges can be built, at any time.
Law-enforcement officers and investigators, prosecutors, judges and intake personnel at jails and prisons must make decisions about people, and the more expansive and accurate the data, the better decisions they’re going to make. Iowa CJIS is a long-term success story that is all about eliminating the complexities and streamlining the workflows that exist in the criminal-justice process in Iowa to enable delivery of that data to authorized recipients when they need it.
Jim Pingel is an account manager for Mission Critical Partners, a managed services and consulting firm focused on the public-safety and justice sectors. MCP is headquartered in State College, Pa. Jim has been intimately involved with the Iowa CJIS project since its earliest stages. He can be emailed at [email protected].