Last week, President Barack Obama’s administration introduced a new one-year strategy for government agencies to improve their openness and transparency by better embracing the “digital age” and rapid acceptance of mobile technologies. In a memo titled, “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People,” the administration published a framework with two core objectives:
1. Enable citizens as well as the increasingly mobile federal workforce to “securely access high-quality digital government information, data and services—‘anywhere, anytime, on any device.’”
2. Establish mechanisms to allow the government to build the modern infrastructure necessary to support digital efforts, which will be led primarily by Steven VanRoekel, the administration’s new Chief Information Officer.
Core to both of these objectives are the concepts of using metadata (data about data) to ensure interoperability and more cost-effective government. Put simply, this memo heralds a new and needed initiative for metadata.
The guidance directs the government to shift from its current model of providing information to the public – organized around presentation and organization of content via websites and documents – and instead break down content into its more basic elements so it is identified by metadata that may include a title, author, subject, and data contained within it. In this way, data can be available across multiple open systems. No longer limited to the container in which it exists, the content’s key components, separately tagged, can be searched upon, discovered, retrieved, and repurposed.
Further, agencies are asked to incorporate privacy and information security into the full data life cycle and design process. Government organizations can save money and improve compliance by doing the “work” of protecting information on the back end. Merging the two concepts together, the memo urges agencies to build privacy and security into the meta tagging process. By assigning appropriate access and permissions to the data itself through content management systems, fewer resources will need to be spent securing the end-points or devices through which the data will be consumed. This concept would be particularly useful for supporting other government initiatives referenced in this memo such as “Bring your own device”, which would allow federal employees to potentially bring their personal smartphones and/or tablets into work. It also supports the growing trend referenced in the memo that more Americans will access the Internet via mobile devices than desktop personal computers by 2015. This makes it that much more important for government agencies to ensure that the content they produce is consumable in multiple formats.
Metadata is not a new theme in government or within the information management industry. Nor is the concept of the government providing data for repurposing across multiple audiences. More than 16 years ago, agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) were working on the development and real-life implementation of advanced metadata standards to classify, manage, and enhance search for information across their vast catalogs of data. In fact, the Z39.50 standard originated in the 1970’s, even before the Web (as we know it today). It later evolved and was expanded in the case of USGS to one of its divisions: The National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII), an agency that fully embraced the important role of metadata in advancing its efforts. NBII supported the vast research initiative that partnered government, the scientific community, universities, and industry to provide increased access to data and information on the nation’s biological resources. The NBII used metadata to link diverse, high-quality biological databases, information products, and analytical tools maintained by NBII partners and other contributors in government agencies, academic institutions, non-government organizations, and private industry. The data provided by NBII and its partners was available freely to the public and used widely by scientists, educators, and the general public.
At the height of its efforts in 2003, metadata was used by the NBII IT systems to ensure that project participants could share information with each other, no matter what “language” they spoke. By creating interoperable metadata schemas with controlled vocabularies, research scientists – along with volunteers who sent in information about their observations in the field – had a common language for communication supported by XML Dublin Core metadata. At that time although the use of metatags was a government requirement, metadata was being used by only a select number of government agencies that understood the important role it held in the search and retrieval process.
While that was almost 10 years ago, and the NBII project has since been de-funded, today metadata is the center of the Obama administrations’ digital strategy once again. There is no question that consistent quality metadata tagging can improve search and can be used to organize and structure content so that it can be more widely disseminated. However, that should not stop organizations from augmenting metadata based on machine derivable metadata. Location, context, and the ability to evaluate the data by filtering out “noise words” can aid in adding meaningful information on the fly to either validate or invalidate human-entered data. Validation of the data is as important as the data itself – allowing the government to innovate with less cost. Enterprise Content Management and collaboration systems such as Microsoft SharePoint 2010 bring this concept to the next level of refinement. AvePoint provides the ability to not only associate metatags with content that is flagged as containing Personally Identifiable Information (PII), but also to ensure that managed metadata stays with the content as it is migrated, replicated, and/or reorganized – thus ensuring that information maintains full fidelity. Securing information on the back-end, through management of permissions, security, access, and controlled metadata in widely prevalent government content management systems such as Microsoft SharePoint, can not only increase the availability and transparency of the information that the government should be making available to the public, but also protects information that should not be available – and it does both at a reduced cost.
The administrations’ directive has laid out an aggressive agenda that will allow agencies to build on past successes, such as the NBII metadata initiative, and take advantage of public/private partnerships to make information more widely available and usable. By using existing IT infrastructure and treating data differently by widely adopting metadata and incorporating data protection simultaneously, government and citizens will be better served.