Alan Kotok is a Washington, DC-based reporter and writer on technology, business, and public policy, and editor of E-Business Standards Today, published by Data Interchange Standards Association (DISA), and Chief Editorial Officer of Technology News and Literature. He writes frequently for the information technology trade press, including Electronic Commerce World magazine, XML.com, and CMP TechWeb. He is the lead author of Print Communications and the Electronic Media Challenge (Jelmar Publishing Co, 1997). Kotok serves on the ebXML Marketing-Awareness-Education project team and the W3C advisory council. Kotok previously served as DISA's Director of Education, responsible for conferences, training, and information resources.
Government and finance industry urge caution on XML
On 5 April 2002, the XML world received a double-dose of sobering news, as reports from both the U.S. General Accounting Office and NACHA, an electronic payments organization, urged their constituents to move cautiously on any commitment to XML. Both reports cite XML's bright promise but express concerns about its stability. Nonetheless, recent events suggest the industry has begun to get the message and started addressing these concerns.
The General Accounting Office (GAO) is the U.S. government's auditor and watchdog body. NACHA, which used to be known as the National Automated Clearing House Association, develops standards and best practices in electronic payments and claims to represent some 12,000 financial institutions through its regional affiliates.
GAO report linked to pending legislation
GAO issued its report, Electronic Government: Challenges to Effective Adaption of the Extensible Markup Language, in response to a request from Senator Lieberman of Connecticut, the chair of the Senate's Committee on Government Affairs, which has jurisdiction over government-wide IT issues. He is also the author of the E-Government Act of 2001 that the committee reported to the full Senate for action in March 2002.
The bill covers many aspects of the government's IT organization and operations but includes areas in which XML can play a vital role. Section 103 of the bill creates a federal Chief Information Officer (CIO), which would have responsibility for establishing and promoting IT "Standards and guidelines for interconnectivity and interoperability" as well as "Standards and guidelines for categorizing and electronically labeling Federal Government electronic information, to enhance electronic search capabilities."
These functions have high priority in the bill. Section 215 sets a deadline of 18 months after enactment of the bill (and a public comment period) for the Federal CIO to "issue a circular or promulgate proposed and final regulations requiring the interoperability standards of cataloging and indexing standards used by agencies."
Against this backdrop, the GAO investigated the status of XML to see if XML standards were ready for government-wide use and to discuss challenges federal agencies could face in adopting XML technology to promote information sharing and interoperability. The GAO and the e-government legislation define interoperability as "the ability of two or more systems or components to exchange information and to use the information that has been exchanged."
XML is sound technology
The GAO's report says XML can bring significant benefits to the way government handles information. If implemented broadly and consistently
XML offers the promise of making it significantly easier for organizations and individuals to (1) identify, integrate, and process information that may initially be widely dispersed among systems and organizations, and (2) conduct transactions based on exchanging and processing such information— key element for federal agencies positioning themselves to provide electronic government services to citizens and businesses. (GAO-02-327, page 12)
GAO also notes that XML has at least the potential for overcoming some of the problems encountered with EDI for business data exchange, due largely to EDI's high cost of implementation.
The GAO discusses the advantages of standard data structures and tagging, a key objective of the legislation. The report noted standards can encourage data sharing and aggregation of the various platforms and computing environments found across the different agencies. As the report notes, "standard tags would make it easy to connect to each agency and exchange relevant information, because each exchange would use the same format to transfer the data and annotate (tag) what it means." (GAO-02-327, page 14).
The GAO outlines the core set of XML standards from the W3C including XML 1.0, XSLT and XSLFO, XML Schema, and XML Namespaces. It also lists a few of the supplementary standards: DOM, XLink, and XPath. The report discusses XML's extensibility which has resulted in important industry vocabularies and business frameworks. And the report discusses several federal applications of XML, including Department of Defense, Environment Protection Agency, Securities and Exchange Commission (the EDGAR system that predates the development of XML), Department of Justice, and Amtrak.