Using the Internet to Collect Data, Collaborate,
and Share Results in Assessing Correctional Programs


Prepared for the:
National Workshop on Assessing
the Effectiveness of Corrections Programs


Chicago, IL
Feb. 10-12, 1998

Cecil Greek
Florida State University
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Page Index
A. Past Problems  

B. Does the Internet Offer Solutions to These Problems?  

C. How Can Data Be Collected Over the Internet? 

D. What Kinds of Collaboration Tools Can Be Used?  

E. Can I Securely Provide Private Information to Those Who Need Access to it?  

F. What Are the Best Ways to Insure the Public Gets the Information it is Entitled To?  
 

     

A. Past Problems 

One of the most frequently cited problems with traditional means of collecting and sharing results has been the time lag associated with publication of government agency reports and scholarly articles in journals and monographs. Collecting data takes time, as does working with colleagues to analyze the data and draw conclusions, and to write up reports. Time periods of up to 24 months to get materials into print are not uncommon. 

Dissemination of findings has been limited in the past as well. Print materials are expensive to produce, and often languish unread in journals and library document repositories. 

On the other hand, government funding agencies frequently request that correctional practitioners provide immediate feedback, so that decisions can be made during the next funding cycle to eliminate poor programs and reward successful ones. 

In addition to information exchange at interagency levels, intraagency communication is a must for successful management of institutions.  Management, treatment staff, and correctional officers need better ways to interact and share problems and experiences. 

 

B. Does the Internet Offer Solutions to These Problems?

One would have to answer this question with a qualified "yes." The Internet can greatly facilitate the collection of data, allow worldwide, real-time collaboration for data analysis and report writing, and permit sharing of  results with whomever needs access to the information. However, once an agency decides to use the Net for internal (Intranet) and external (Internet or Extranet) communication, issues regarding privacy and security emerge. These must be adequately prepared for prior to establishing an Internet presence that amounts to more than a home page showing the head of the head of the department of corrections.

What we'll attempt to do in this part of the presentation is to suggest options for collecting, collaborating and sharing correctional assessments.  And alongside these issues, we'll discuss security and privacy concerns v. public information mandates.
 

C. How Can Data Be Collected Over the Internet?

Obviously, this depends on the type of data one is collecting.

1. Reports and text can be exchanged via email (as plain text or HTML) or as email attachments with all formatting preserved. Unfortunately both readers must have the same software (e.g. Word Perfect) to view the documents. Sending documents produced using Microsoft Office 97 is a major problem.

Users of email intend their messages only to be read by the intended receivers. Many people do not know that
email can be intercepted by others or that their email messages may be stored on servers or back-up media. The only way to prevent possible interception of email is to use encryption software. Only the sender and receiver can read the messages. The most well known email encryption software, Pretty Good Privacy, was developed by Phil Zimmermann. In fact, PGP proved to be so effective, Phil ran into trouble with the federal government. They branded his software as a "munition," banned it from export, and threatened to arrest him.

An advantage of using secure encryption techniques is that all messages can include a "digital signature." How does it work? Most importantly, this guarantees that the message is from the purported sender, and that the message has not been altered since it was signed. This can be used to send sensitive criminal justice information between agencies without fear on interception and/or alteration.  PGP has been incorporated into the latest versions of Eudora Pro's email clients.

2. Statistical Data requires a different solution. The holy grail of data collection and analysis is to be able to input data once and be able to use it for multiple purposes. The former is easier to accomplish than the latter.

Organization-wide data collection can be facilitated by setting up a password protected form that accepts input from validated users and sends the data in encrypted format directly to a database program. Such solutions can be constructed from scratch if you have a top notch programmer, or developed by using a combination of off-the-shelf database, HTML, and security software. For example, forms can be built using Frontpage 98, access to the form can be protected by a Javascript password, the resulting submissions simultaneously saved as HTML, comma-delimited text files, directly imported into database programs, and sent as encrypted email. Secure encrpytion of form data submissions has been pioneered by on-line merchants to exchange credit card data. Using Javascript, data entry errors can be reduced as form fields can be tailored to only accept certain types of data.

One example of a complete solution is WebFiler DB. The software is fully Web-based but supports importing existing databases. The built-in security allows the administrator to:
 

  1. Create, delete, manage Groups
  2. Add or remove Users from groups
  3. Assign table access Rights to a group
  4. Turn on/off Anonymous access to this table
  5. Add user accounts
  6. Remove user accounts

Another trend is to link data via the Web from installed mainframe computers, many of which are still in use at government agencies such as police and courts. Shadow Direct software permits access to mainframe data from a user's desktop via TCP/IP. 



Web to Mainframe Data Flows  

A student taking one of my courses worked at an agency. As his class project he set up a series of Web page forms that permitted administrators to submit weekly reports and other information directly to the agency's database. The staff had already spent considerable time trying to design ways to collect statewide data, and had to that point come up with no viable solutions.
 

 

D. What Kinds of Collaboration Tools Can Be Used?

There are a number of ways to collaborate on projects over the Internet. Both real time (synchronous) and asynchronous solutions are available.

One of the simplest ways is to set up a password protected Web site or Intranet and allow users to upload HTML documents via FTP.  While you can start with ordinary word processed documents there are a number of reasons for writing all documents in HTML. Collaboraters can then read, comment, edit, and resubmit the documents to the Web site.

Another excellent way to create a repository of organizational information is to use forum discussion tools.
These allow users to post messages and return later to read responses. Forums are based on the same technology as Usenet newsgroups, but message strings can be password protected or open to the public as needed.

Two examples of forum discussion software are Conference on the Fly and WebBoard. Messages can include HTML hyperlinks, documents, and graphics.

For real time collaboration, chat software serves best. While originally limited to exchanging text messages, chat software such as Microsoft Netmeeting supports audio chat, videoconferencing, shared whiteboards, exchanging files, group presentations (thru sharing of Powerpoint or Web browser), and collaborative writing and design (thru sharing a word processor or copy of Photoshop). By setting up your own chat server, privacy can be maintained. 


Netmeeting  

CommonSpace , DoubleAgent , and Web Project also can be used to create collaborative environments. CommonSpace is the most significant of the three in that it can be used to create an environment ideally suited for collaborative writing projects. Among its most significant features is its 3 column design, one for first draft material, one for editing, and a third for annotations.



CommonSpace

Already appearing are 3D chat worlds in which users, as avatars, can interact with others anywhere in the world. These may become a major source for information sharing, training, and simulation development



 


Worlds Chat

 

E. Can I Securely Provide Private Information to Those Who Need Access to it?
 
 

The very same tools used to create collaborative reports can be used to share them with others who need access to data and findings. It is possible to set up both intra-agency and interagency Intranets. Using Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol multiple servers at remote locations can be securely linked for information exchange, creating Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) via the Internet. 

F. What Are the Best Ways to Insure the Public Gets the Information it is Entitled To?

Much of the the information produced by correctional agencies needs to get into the hands of the public at some point. This would include other researchers, legislators, policy makers, journalists, and interested citizens. Sunshine laws in states such as Florida mandate public reports. New state and federal laws require that correctional officials alert the public when certain types of offenders are up for parole/release or have returned to the community. For example, FDLE maintains searchable on-line databases of sexual predators and sexual offenders.

A number of agencies are setting up Extranets. These are combination Internet--Intranet Web sites. The Intranet portion is private while the Internet section of the Web site is open to the public.

Given the potential audiences for Web-based presentation of materials, the Internet is the perfect medium for the next wave of information exchange. With dissemination and feedback built into the Internet's structure, eliminating the need for publication and distribution, two issues remain to be solved, (1) visibility and (2) relevance.

Visibility on the web is not automatic. While anyone or organization can put up a Web page, most are never visited. If the Web site can't be found its useless. Submitting new pages to search engines, getting listed on key index pages, choosing just the right metatags, and exchanging links with webmasters of similar pages, etc., are essential. Sometimes these functions seen like a full time job.

Relevance is a more difficult issue to solve. I have been asked many times how one can judge the
relative worth of stuff on the Web, given that there are no gatekeepers. Anyone can post anything they want to communicate. My answer is always the same. Use the very same standards you would use in everyday life to judge Web documents. Who is the author? Are they known or unknown? Does the article use reputable sources to make its points? Does it have a bibliography? Etc. It is also important to recognize the differences between “sensational,” “popular,” “substantive news/general interest,” and “scholarly” publications, so that sources can be used appropriately. As a Web author you must establish your credibility by having materials to back up what you are saying, like any author would be required to do. Given that pages posted by correctional agencies have routinized authority, the relevance issue is diminished. Nevertheless, unless the Web site remains visible, relevant, and ultimately, useful to people, it will have little overall impact.
 
 

 
Comments or Further Information:
Send Email to Cecil Greek
cgreek@mailer.fsu.edu
Copyright 1998
http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/sharing-data.html