Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Information Sharing Through "Enlightened Bribery"

Alabama has created a geo-spatial tool, Virtual Alabama, that accumulates public data about homes, schools, businesses, and other locations within the state. Police, fire departments, health care providers and other users can use the tool for preparedness and response. (Also see this post from last July.)

Government Computer News offered an inside look at how the state's Department of Homeland Security went about getting the information to populate the database:

[P]rojects such as Virtual Alabama are always hungry for data, especially in their early stages. And one of the best ways to get data from other local agencies is a form of enlightened bribery, Walker said.

“We determined very quickly that the best imagery available in Alabama was in either state agencies or in county revenue departments because they fly and take a picture of your house to reassess it,” Walker said. “So we go to the revenue folks, and I say, ‘I’m the Homeland Security director, and I’d like your imagery.’ And they say, ‘I’m not giving you my imagery. I paid a million dollars for this imagery.’ They don’t want to give it to anybody because they assume that you have some sort of financial gain after they’ve spent this money. So how do we solve this problem?”

Walker’s strategy was to do an end around by going to county sheriffs. “The typical Alabama sheriff carries a pretty big stick in his county,” Walker said. “He can get just about anything he wants. So we bring the sheriffs together and say, ‘OK, sheriffs, if we had your county’s imagery, these are the kinds of things we [could] give you for free,’ ” he continued.

Walker offered to give the sheriffs free access to the data on one condition: “You’ve got to get me your county data.” So, Walker said, “the sheriff goes to the revenue commissioner and says, ‘I’ll tell you what: You’re going to get a ticket every day if you don’t give the Homeland Security director the imagery from our county.’ ”
Sounds like good old-fashioned leveraged negotiations to me.

Virtual Alabama is a real-world demonstration of the concept that, for information-sharing to be successful, two conditions must exist:

1. Parties must be willing to share the information.
2. The information must be presented in a usable format.

Virtual Alabama succeeds on both counts. But too often, even if the first hurdle is passed, the second one is not. We're hearing that out of fusion centers - that there's a lot of data being ostensibly shared, but it's not in a usable form, so it's difficult to use effectively.

Form follows function.

1 comment:

Dale Rose said...

Seems that the lessons to be drawn from this are somewhat less axiomatic than you've indicated. I'd say that information-sharing requires substantial social, and in some cases political, capital as well as the ability on the part of information-seekers to suss out the "proper" (and usually informal) channels and relationships where clout, authority, and in the more desirable cases, trust, are already long established. True, good ol' fashioned arm-twisting has its uses and makes good copy, but seems a precarious method to put robust preparedness and response capacity systems in place.