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Experts address government data problems

A proactive group of federal employees is addressing the government's data challenges head-on.

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It's no secret that the U.S. government has data management problems. It's something a group of government employees behind the scenes have volunteered to help solve.

The Federal Metadata Management Consortium (FMMC) is a group of government workers from over 30 agencies who are working on improving government data management processes. The FMMC was born when representatives from a few agencies started talking informally about data management processes and software tools, explained co-chair, Diana Young. She's a data registrar for the Federal Aviation Administration and has worked on data management for the government and private companies for the last 25 years. Young and her counterparts at other government agencies -- generally data managers, administrators and architects -- decided to form a working group to discuss data issues ranging from vendor tool evaluations to information sharing.

"We felt we had to be able to go behind closed doors and very candidly review different issues," Young explained.

Young and Janice Tyson Wolf, data registrar for the department of Housing and Urban Development, are co-founders and co-chairs of the group, which meets monthly in Washington, D.C. The group includes members from a wide variety of agencies, including the National Institute of Health, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security. The members are not required to participate in the group, though their supervisors are generally supportive, Young said. The consortium, originally called the Federal Data Registries Users Group, was founded in 2003 as as a way to share information -- data manager to data manager -- about best practices, effective tools and management strategies.

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Not long after that, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) started thinking about data management as part of a presidential initiative to improve government by applying business principles. The OMB drafted a data reference model (DRM) to describe information in a consistent manner, so that multiple federal agencies could easily locate and use government data. It released the first version of the DRM in September 2004. FMMC members took a look and were very concerned.

The first DRM outlined a technical approach, but didn't have a solid, long-term strategy, Young said. It had been heavily influenced by vendors and didn't take into account the disparate needs and information architectures of federal agencies. The FMMC was able to provide guidance for the second, more comprehensive version of the DRM, released in December of 2005. But its work was certainly not done, Young said.

Now the group focuses on issues like managing and implementing the DRM at their own agencies, information sharing, metadata management, vendor tool evaluations and best practices. The FMMC regularly invites vendors in for product demonstrations and coordinates smaller working committees that address specific issues, like identification, content description and exchange models. Agencies may also bring in private consultants and experts, though outside visitors don't get a vote when the group makes decisions.

The FMMC grapples with issues like data sharing, governance, quality and stewardship -- all made more complex by the size and scope of the government and its myriad internal architectures. The stakes are high too as government data affects everything from citizen services to homeland security and consumer privacy.

To sort out the vast amounts of data involved, the group defines "communities of interest." Each of these communities owns, or has an interest in, similar data. Group members within each community discuss issues such as what types of data each agency collects, consistent metadata definitions and secure information sharing practices. For example, there's a community of interest defined around "geospatial data" which might discuss data that is managed by the FAA or other transportation agencies. There's another community of interest around "intelligence data" that has unique information security needs to consider. Agencies might be involved in multiple communities of interest, depending on the types of data that they own or require. By defining these communities around functional subject areas, the group can better consider the data needs of multiple agencies.

"We're really taking it very seriously and truly looking to share resources and help each other implement solutions," Young said.

In 2006, the FMMC hopes to have a bigger presence, making their charters, operating procedures and some of their presentations available to the general public. The group uses a "Wiki" Web site that enables collaboration on documents and planning materials and plans to make this site available for public viewing. Other data managers at private companies might be able to benefit from the collective knowledge of the FMMC, Young said.

Ultimately, the FMMC hopes that the work they do will affect everybody in the country.

"The citizens will benefit from the improved quality of data services," Young said. "If we can improve the efficiencies of government … we can make better use of our tax dollars."

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