Data standard gains traction for intelligence sharing

Standardized format provides way to express data fundamentals

Information sharing has been repeatedly identified as a critical requirement of both joint operations within the Defense Department and interagency cooperation across the federal government. In 2007, DOD and the U.S. intelligence community convened a task force to examine ways to make information sharing between services and agencies more seamless.

Three years later, the initiative is beginning to bear fruit. In March 2009, the UCore Interagency Information Sharing Initiative released the second version of Universal Core (UCore), an Extensible Markup Language-based data structure designed to provide a standard way to share intelligence information across agencies.

In the year since its release, UCore has gained nearly 3,000 registered users, said Dan Green, data strategy technical process owner at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command and former federal co-lead of the UCore Interagency Information Sharing Initiative.

Adoption has continued to grow rapidly in the wake of the Christmas Day airplane bombing attempt on a flight bound for Detroit and because of the recognition that a lack of timely information sharing remains a major national security issue. One of the greatest barriers to information sharing is the incompatibility of the systems used by different agencies — or even within them.

“Within DOD, across all of the information systems we have, there is no common way to express some of the most fundamental elements of data, like location data or time data,” said Olithia Strom, director of the Navy Data Engineering Services Center at SPAWAR’s Systems Center Pacific. “There's no common format that we use across all those systems. UCore provides that common definition at the exchange layer to share information between those systems.”

The UCore standard focuses on the structure of the information being shared between systems and not how that information gets shared. “UCore itself is not a system,” Strom said. “UCore isn't the service to publish the information out. It's the format for the program to implement.”

SPAWAR serves as the technical agent for the UCore standard, though the standard is overseen by the Configuration Control Board, which includes the chief information officers of DOD and the Office of National Intelligence, in addition to representatives from each of the military services, the intelligence community, and the Homeland Security and Justice departments. The program also has oversight from the Office of Management and Budget and the Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment.

DHS and Justice joined the effort in October 2007, after the first release of UCore. DOD CIO John Grimes asked the UCore team to bring in DHS and Justice, Green said. “So we initiated Version 2 with them, and we released the production version of Version 2 in March of 2009."

Sections of the Core

UCore 2.0's data model consists of five primary parts. The first is a common vocabulary “for the most commonly exchanged information concepts: who, what, when and where,” Green said. “We took those concepts and burrowed them down into things that were codable — time, location and entities.”

The data model also defines a message framework. The message can carry additional information for more context, including unstructured text data, such as narrative content about the person or thing being tracked. The framework wraps the rest of the data “so it can be encapsulated and rendered the same way between various machines,” Green said.

The message framework is “designed to be transport agnostic,” said Brian Freeman of Mitre and the UCore chief engineer at SPAWAR. The information in UCore could be transported via the Simple Object Access Protocol, provided as a Representational State Transfer-type service, or come across an enterprise service bus, he said.

UCore also includes security markings that can define which elements of information can pass outside a secure network. “It's used as part of a cross-domain solution,” Green said. "You can actually parse out various pieces of the content based on the security markings of that piece. You can use markings down to the sentence level if you want.”

To help enterprise search tools easily find UCore content, the standard provides a model for metadata, too. The metadata model incorporates the DOD Discovery Metadata Specification so that data sources can be indexed and searched across the DOD enterprise. And the UCore team continues to work to make sure UCore-based information assets can be easily discovered through catalogs and search.

Freeman said Mitre employees met recently with representatives from DOD and the intelligence community who are working on the enterprise search specification built on open search. “We've done some work with the DOD enterprise catalog to help them discover that these information assets exist. And with the new search specification coming out within DOD and the [intelligence community], we're talking through how that might look.”

To promote adoption of UCore, Version 2.0 provides guidance so that users can extend the data model to add new elements. The developers created naming and design rules for those concepts so users can define the attributes and values that can be used within the XML specification, Green said. They also created an extension pattern so that the small core could be used in complex information exchanges.

“We couldn't predict how people were going to use the XML or define all the missions,” he said.

Through the extension pattern, subject-matter experts in various mission areas could start working in UCore and extend it, thereby creating information interoperability. That way, they are using part of the standard to customize the level of interoperability based on the level of commonality they build in.

The extension capability is key to getting wider adoption of UCore and creating broader interoperability in information systems — not only within the federal government but also with other collaborators, Green said. “What that does is it allows a mechanism for integrating systems. It's also a mechanism for when new data models or new communities start their data modeling efforts, they can start with Universal Core and build UCore's interoperability into new systems.”

Early Adopters

A number of projects are already under way using UCore. One is the Northern Command’s integration of UCore-based reporting into their unclassified common operational picture system. “Northcom has a homeland defense mission,“ Green said. “So that was a joint development effort with DHS and Northcom, so we could cross over into those mission areas where events overlapped and took some handheld devices like BlackBerry and Iridium phones, and used UCore to get GPS from those handheld devices directly into the common operational picture. That capability is very useful in crisis situations, such as in Haiti.”

The developers are working with the Air Force and Strategic Command, which needed to integrate some ground-based radars for ballistic missile tracking, Green said. The result of the effort is that the MIT Lincoln Labs and a team from the Air Force have created that integration and will test it during an upcoming exercise.

Several other agencies and communities are also embracing UCore, Green said. The Defense Intelligence Agency is evaluating UCore as a common standard for sensor data output in the agency’s Sensor Web program; the Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear community is using it as part of its sensor standards evaluation; and the Joint IED Defeat Organization is working to extend its Weapons Technical Intelligence Schema.

And the UCore team is looking to spread adoption beyond DOD and the other UCore stakeholders. The UCore reference models have been made publicly available on the Web at UCore.gov. Those who wish to access the reference models must register to download them, Green said. “We've made it a publicly available specification, so we can encourage adoption across not only DOD and the federal government but across nongovernment organizations and, of course, the industrial base that we want to incorporate UCore to increase interoperability.”

Strom said that within DOD, the UCore initiative has started a project space within the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Forge.mil collaboration environment. “We're looking at using Forge.mil to better collaborate and coordinate within the DOD for the specification, in addition to our current Web site. So we do have a project space there now,” she said.

About the Author

Sean Gallagher is senior contributing editor for Defense Systems.

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