XML In Government: Promise And Politics

Open standards appeal to cash-strapped state and federal agencies because they're cheap, easy to manage, and nonproprietary

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

March 17, 2006

4 Min Read

Too Powerful To Ignore
XML tends to move into government most successfully at the agency level. It's far too powerful a tool to ignore, says New York's Short. Last year, he spent six months participating in an XML test bed project that the Center for Technology in Government sponsored aimed at duplicating the center's success in using open standards for Web development and content management. Based on his experience in the project, Short is using XML to transform both the process for developing and administering examinations for state and municipal jobs and to post qualified candidates for positions in a way that state agencies can easily access.

Today, those exams and postings are created in Word documents by one person, then shipped to a Web publisher, who translates them to HTML so they can be posted on the Web. That person transfers the documents into Corel Ventura conversion software to be converted by someone else into a PDF format. There's room for error at each touch point, Short says. Plus, if any person along that way finds an error, there's a chance that person won't be able to find the other people in time to make the changes in other formats.

With XML, documents are only published once and can be viewed by any application. What's more, an error only needs to be corrected once and the changes are automatically made throughout any other version of the document. In addition to risk prevention, XML offers efficiency payoffs such as eliminating the need for a Web publisher.

Short's long-term dream is to use a standard language for all of the Civil Service Department's exams to simplify the examination-building process. Today, exam builders have more freedom of language in how they ask questions. Short's plan is to use a standard language and XML so that test creators simply check the boxes for questions to be added. "We can have radically different exams run by the same program with the XML data driving the examination," Short says.

For some agencies, XML is a long-standing and pervasive technology that has proved its worth in cost and time savings. The federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, a division of the Justice Department, has been working on an XML-based standard, the Global Justice XML Data Model, to promote information sharing across all local, state, and federal justice agencies for the past six years. The bureau has collaborated with federal, state, and local agencies to build on the existing XML development standards, and then keep those results transparent so that other states or local agencies can use them.

The bureau's XML schema is so well developed that it can implement large national information sharing projects, such as linking states' sex-offender registries and national law enforcement databases to be published for the public, in a matter of months at a low cost, says Patrick McCreary, associate deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Model Program
Similarly, state law enforcement agencies are able to use the schema to quickly develop their own programs. Missouri used the code to complete a project unifying court data from 49 unique court-case management systems into a single database, the largest statewide implementation based on the Global Justice XML Data Model. The project will be used as a model for other states to follow. "Keeping the data model open promotes reuse whenever possible so one jurisdiction can leverage the work another has done and adapt it to whatever their needs are," McCreary says.

But the only way that strategy will work is if the people involved in developing them know what they're doing, McCreary says. That's why his department has trained hundreds of developers in both the public and private sectors on how to use the standard correctly. "With a consensus standard, unless you have a training practice so people are implementing it in a similar manner, they won't be able to share information effectively," he says.

The CTG understands that. To help ensure that XML is being used consistently as a Web publishing tool, the center has collected and analyzed all the data from its test bed project and by the end of the month will post a free resource library on the Web. "We've come up with recommended practices, lessons-learned documents, an XML library of tools and stylesheets, and an XML starter kit," Canestraro says. The center's extensive ROI analysis from its own XML project is also available for public viewing.

Whether used as a Web publishing tool or a document format to save money or improve collaboration, open standards are rapidly weaving their way across every level of the government technology enterprise. And the open-standard controversy is simply a page in a long and continuing history of IT and government, California's Kelso says. "Next year, something better than XML may come along, but my business focus will be the same," he says. "I expect our technologists to take the next greatest thing and apply it to our business needs."

Sidebar: Open Source Struggles To Win Critical Mass

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