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Building a Better Mousetrap

Logan Gregory, Deputy Director, Office of Law Enforcement, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

You get out of it, what you put into it. But do you know what you want to get out of it? Is what you are putting into it, and how you are putting it in, going to give you the results and information you need? The “IT” (pun intended) in this case is your law enforcement case management and information system.

Developing new, and better, case management and information systems are a significant challenge for any law enforcement organization. Having been directly involved in this challenge myself (more than once), I can assure you it is not for the faint of heart. You will be the one blamed for it “not working.” From gathering the requirements for the new (and hopefully improved) system, to deciding what you will do with all of the legacy data you have, the success of the development is deep inside the details of -- What do we need to get out of the system from the data we put into it? This is where you need to start; this is where the rubber meets the road.

The decision to create a new system has been made. Apparently, there is a need -- Why else would an agency take up such a daunting and expensive task? I would bet the decision involved the fact that the current system is not, or cannot, provide the agency with output data and information it needs, either for investigations, or for some measures of effectiveness, or other administrative management functions. Whatever the reason, collecting data and information is the easy part, the hard part is the relational aspects of the information being collected, and how it needs to be structured in the new system to get what is needed out of the system.

Any agency that is in the process of deciding whether or not to create a new system, or has already made the decision, must spend most of their time outlining what is needed out of the system. In other words, the beginning of your process should be to reverse engineer your system. Start with what you want out of it, not what you want to put into it (the information you think you need to capture).

Your development team needs to understand -- and I mean really understand -- the goal of your new system. By goal I mean ask the question -- What do we want to be able to do, or represent, with the data we get out of the system? Sounds simple enough, but simple does not mean easy, especially not in this case. Defining all the needs from all of the different user groups of your collected data is very difficult to accomplish, and even more difficult put into a statement of work, and to communicate to your developer.

Here are some questions to ask as you outline your needs. Many other questions spin-off from these questions, but these will get your team started. Who are our user groups? This needs to be the first question because you want members of these user groups represented on your development team. What questions about our data are we frequently asked to provide? What are our investigative intelligence needs? What other systems do we need to communicate with? What data do we need to import into the system? What forms and reports do we currently generate? What reports or forms can we not currently generate, but need to generate? What new initiatives are on the horizon that may influence what we may need to report out or be able to analyze better? What do we need the system to be able to do with external documents? How do our users need to be able to access the system in their different operational environments? What security do we need to have in place (this one is huge)?

By these questions, you can probably see where this is headed. This is by no means all of the questions you’ll need to ask and answer. There will be some very long discussions, and beware of falling into the trap of tangential conversations that only discuss and consider the collection of information, and getting that information into the system. It will happen. Be aware of it, and keep the focus on your outputs and needs.

The devil is in the details. You won’t get to the right details without asking the right questions at the beginning of your process. Make and take the time to ask and answer all of the tough questions. Many, when you think about it, you will not know the complete answer to, and it will take time to tease out those answers fully. In the end, all of that time and effort will be worth it. Know that your system, however it gets implemented in the end, will not be perfect. It will need future enhancements, and you will need additional and redesigned reports, it will be an ongoing process. Commercial off the shelf (COTS) product or from the ground up software development, whatever you chose, that choice needs to be agile enough to accommodate required enhancements, upgrades, and changes.

Good luck with building your better mousetrap!

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