NIEM : Is it a Model, a Methodology, or a Community?

Late last month I joined over 500 people gathered at the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) annual Training Event in Philadelphia to discuss progress in NIEM adoption, hear about tools that have been developed by government and industry to facilitate NIEM processes, and learn about best practices developed by the NIEM community. In addition to 20 federal agencies and 40 state and local government agencies, both Canada and Mexico were represented by senior government IT executives. A range of very diverse projects were discussed at the Philadelphia event, including the initial Canada-USA-Mexico data exchange project that will facilitate sharing of stolen vehicle data beginning in 2012. So, what is NIEM and why all the buzz? NIEM is, at its most fundamental level, a U.S. Federal government initiative that promotes the accurate exchange of data between organizations through the use of Extensible Markup Language (XML). This may sound elementary - after all, this was what XML was intended to be used for since its approval as a W3C recommendation in 1998. However, when two or more participants in a data exchange begin to work through the 'details' it becomes readily apparent that the vocabulary that one uses internally may be quite different from that used by the other. For example, does the database field identified as 'Name' by one entity refer to a person or something else? A person's full name? Including suffixes? Is the database field 'surname' equivalent to the second agency's database field 'Last_Name' or a local police department's field 'perpetrator'? Is a single agency's internal database design guideline consistent across various databases from which data might be pulled for sharing as a consolidated record about some individual?