August 10, 2005 4:58 PM PDT

FBI abandons old computer system, tries again

The FBI has formally begun the process of trying to replace its $170 million case-management software with something that will work.

The bureau on Tuesday announced it had contacted 40 selected contractors asking for bids on creating the project, which is being called Sentinel and will succeed the now-defunct Virtual Case File system.

An effort to modernize FBI case management systems that relied on paper and antiquated computer hardware, the VCF was supposed to usher agents into the 21st century by allowing them to more easily share information. Instead, it turned into a flop that ended with public finger-pointing between contractor SAIC and top bureau officials.

A May 2004 report (PDF here) from the National Academies found "inadequate" management of VCF by the bureau and warned that if the system were activated all at once as planned, it would run a "very high risk" of crippling failure.

FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted to Congress in February that at least $104.5 million had been lost on VCF and could not be reused on a successor system. A month later, Mueller officially pulled the plug.

In addition to handling any technical challenges, the bureau will have to convince Congress that it can avoid repeating the same mistakes it made with VCF. One recent article in U.S. News and World Report reported that Sentinel might cost a whopping $792 million--a sizable check even for a federal agency with a budget as flush as the FBI's.

So far the FBI isn't talking about Sentinel's expected cost. A brief statement released Tuesday said only: "Sentinel will further enable the FBI to achieve its mission priorities by enhancing information access and promoting information sharing with law enforcement and intelligence community members."

The requirement for Sentinel is similar to that of the defunct VCF system: namely, to update the FBI's case management software, replace paper with electronic files, and link multiple databases for quick searches.

"What the agent on the street does not have is a user-friendly format for inputting investigative and intelligence information into his or her computer," Mueller said in February. "Instead, the agent faces a cumbersome, time-consuming process of preparing a paper record of that information, seeking the necessary approvals, then uploading the document into an existing database."

The FBI did not release the names of the companies invited to bid nor any information on the system's specifications.

6 comments

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We learn from mistakes...
Especially if it costs millions of dollars... :-)
Posted by Mendz (519 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not Necessarily
If you learn but the decision maker doesn't, the system is no smarter.

Preparation of paper-based forms from digital sources (going from a QBE form to a report) is the dominant interface metaphor and real output for almost every case management system sold in public safety. Why?

The systems are designed to support the preparation of administrative statistics (say NIBRS/UCR), not the gathering and dissemination of case facts and conditions. In short, the systems are very good at getting information in and terrible at getting it out. In most cases, the facts needed to put the dots together are in the unstructured and opaque supplemental reports attached to the case records. Some advice to procurement officials: don't approve the purchase of any records management system for public safety that doesn't include at least a rudimentary version of these features:

1. Ad hoc cross table querying capable of creating RSS or HTML formatted reports. Prefer RSS/Atom.

2. Unstructured search capabilities (see the UIMA architecture from IBM (No I don't work for IBM)). You need this to get into the supplements and other attached BLOBs.

3. Geolocation-based aggregation. Think pin maps with user defined queries, but for your own protection, don't a) assume you can do this with google maps and b) do try for real time 3D.

4. Work with the local, state and tribal agencies to get messaging interop. You have some of that now, but it isn't consistent and the cruiser installations aren't as good as they can be. Start eliminating the middle vendors.

No administrative management system or dispatch system ever solved a rape case or detected a terrorist in real time. Pre-real time analysis is hard but if you are to better focus your surveillance systems, this is a must have.
Posted by Len Bullard (454 comments )
Link Flag
We learn from mistakes...
Especially if it costs millions of dollars... :-)
Posted by Mendz (519 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not Necessarily
If you learn but the decision maker doesn't, the system is no smarter.

Preparation of paper-based forms from digital sources (going from a QBE form to a report) is the dominant interface metaphor and real output for almost every case management system sold in public safety. Why?

The systems are designed to support the preparation of administrative statistics (say NIBRS/UCR), not the gathering and dissemination of case facts and conditions. In short, the systems are very good at getting information in and terrible at getting it out. In most cases, the facts needed to put the dots together are in the unstructured and opaque supplemental reports attached to the case records. Some advice to procurement officials: don't approve the purchase of any records management system for public safety that doesn't include at least a rudimentary version of these features:

1. Ad hoc cross table querying capable of creating RSS or HTML formatted reports. Prefer RSS/Atom.

2. Unstructured search capabilities (see the UIMA architecture from IBM (No I don't work for IBM)). You need this to get into the supplements and other attached BLOBs.

3. Geolocation-based aggregation. Think pin maps with user defined queries, but for your own protection, don't a) assume you can do this with google maps and b) do try for real time 3D.

4. Work with the local, state and tribal agencies to get messaging interop. You have some of that now, but it isn't consistent and the cruiser installations aren't as good as they can be. Start eliminating the middle vendors.

No administrative management system or dispatch system ever solved a rape case or detected a terrorist in real time. Pre-real time analysis is hard but if you are to better focus your surveillance systems, this is a must have.
Posted by Len Bullard (454 comments )
Link Flag
 

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