As anyone who works with information knows, most organizations have plenty of raw information to work with. A lack of information is hardly ever a problem, especially in government circles. But raw information can be misleading, complex and overwhelming. In many cases, organizations spend more time working through the morass caused by the avalanche of information than they do actually using it.
In times of disaster or war, this can of course be catastrophic. For example, in the cases of both the tsunami in Asia and Katrina in the USA, there was plenty of raw data that could have led to early warnings and valuable information for first responders. But the information was virtually unusable; there was simply too much and it was completely unorganized. For instance, there was satellite information about Katrina available, but it was simply unusable to users along the line.
The way to make raw information usable is through metadata; by tagging metadata you make the right information recognizable to other users down the information chain. And all along the chain users can continue the process of tagging metadata so each receiver finds the information recognizable and usable.
So says Greg Akers, head of the Government Solutions Group for Cisco Systems, and co-author of The Black Book on Government Security from Larstan Publishing (publication date October 2006), intended to introduce managers and IS professionals to the key cyber security challenges faced by all levels of government.
"This can be particularly valuable in the world of first responders. This is a case where immediate and usable information can be critical to saving lives," Akers says.
"Some governments and industry sectors have been better than other in terms of working with metadata to facilitate information sharing. The UK, Germany and Switzerland tend to do a good job in this area. And, in the private sector, the financial services industry is exemplary . . . probably because they've been involved in extensive information sharing for so long.
"In Australia, the government has asked agencies to provide information of progress toward information sharing, in the hope it can be improved."
Akers says to stay a step ahead of security threats, government IT managers must adopt a new way of thinking. What's required is the ability to analyze data as it's being collected, and to simultaneously put this data into historical context. The goal is to decide in real time what's actionable and what's not. That's where metadata comes in.
Akers says decision makers often are put into a position of using available information - sourced from both predictable as well as more volatile and unpredictable processes - to make rational decisions about how to act. Their utility must be determined by the user and applied to the decision process appropriately.
He says while technology alone can't take the place of higher reasoning in that assessment, it can assist a human in making decisions in a more precise and timely manner. Technology can apply analytical insight, for greater perspective and deeper understanding. Part of the problem that analysts of all types encounter is the need to distill waves of information in a timely and expeditious fashion into something that is consumable and usable by a human. Sometimes this may mean that technology needs to speed up the processing, other times it may mean that technology needs to slow the process down and clarify its direction.
"What I am suggesting is that technology can apply rules and "learn" from previous situational processing. This knowledge can be incorporated to produce an outcome that a human would otherwise not be able to extract at all or, at least, not in a timely enough fashion to take the appropriate action," he says.
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