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Onsite: Collaborating with Documents, Managing with XML

Researchers and managers at NASA's Universities Space Research Association work with conventional authoring tools, but they keep componentized content up to date in a central database.

Driving Force

When USRA's Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science (RIACS) and NASA collaborators were approached by a high-level manager who wanted to improve the agency's ability to manage project performance, it didn't take long to identify a manual, cut-and-paste content-development process as a major barrier to progress. But automating that process meant solving an underlying data problem.

"The main technological challenge was integrating across a diversity of existing databases, such as SAP and Oracle, as well as existing document templates, such as quad-chart presentations, task-plan documents and financial spreadsheets in Microsoft PowerPoint, Word and Excel," Bell explains. To solve the problem, a core technical team was assembled that included scientists and engineers from within RIACS as well as from within NASA, USRA's primary customer.

Given Bell's 10 years of experience at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, it's not surprising that he turned to Xerox to help co-develop an extensible database that could create renditions of content in queriable XML.The underlying approach was invented and patented by USRA and NASA, and has since been commercialized by Xerox as DocuShare CPX.

Despite RIACS's distributed structure, there were few organizational obstacles to the project in part because they still enjoy the ease and simplicity of working with conventional documents while they've gained the automation and granular control of XML-based content management. Individual project managers continue to edit and update their task plans, monthly reports and budgets in familiar templated documents using tools such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. When updates are complete, the project managers upload the latest content into CPX and synchronize with new milestones, budgets and directives handed down from program managers. Similarly, technical managers and financial managers synchronize their templated reporting and analysis documents with the latest information available in CPX.