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What's Your Government Doing with XML? - With the advent of XML authoring tools, it's more than you might think

What's Your Government Doing with XML? - With the advent of XML authoring tools, it's more than you might think

Popular wisdom dictates that governments are slow to adopt anything new, especially when it comes to new technologies. But if you look closely, you might find something unexpected.

Across the U.S. and around the world, governments are integrating XML into their workflow. From legislation creation, to Web portals, to intra-department data integration, XML is having a dramatic impact on government workflows. In fact, you may already be using some form of XML-based government service.

Government departments have been working on XML adoption strategies for some time, and in some government corners the process is nearly complete. The U.S. House of Representatives, for example, is currently close to drafting all its introduced bills in XML.

This article will take a closer look at the use of XML for government legislation - an accelerating segment of XML adoption within state and federal governments. It will also examine the history, workflow, and tools being used to spur this rapid adoption.

The Need for XML for Government Legislation
To understand how XML is becoming a preferred format for legislation, it is helpful to consider the history of legislation creation. In the U.S. government, the history of structured documents starts with the Government Printing Office (GPO). For decades, the GPO has been responsible for producing paper versions of a massive variety and high volume of government documents. The documents the GPO produces are critical because paper hard copies are still the document of record (or the golden master, as is said in the software industry).

Fifty years ago, when the GPO started to print documents, technology and standards were sparse. Nonetheless, by the mid 1960s, the GPO deployed a system that used locator codes to enable the specification of typesetting instructions for printing documents. These early computerized publishing systems were using metadata. In fact, locator codes are similar to the kind of metadata that is often captured via XML attributes.

But the actual process of capturing metadata had to be done by someone. Attorneys creating legislation were also trained to insert the GPO locator codes into the documents they were creating. Today this is called hand tagging. Over time, the editing tools used to create the legislation evolved into PC-based software products, but the hand tagging and insertion of GPO codes continued, aided by an enormous series of keyboard shortcuts.

Fast forward to 2003 and locator codes are still alive and well at the GPO. Now they are used to generate PDF documents that can be easily printed. But attorneys are still an ever-present force in government, and their time is more expensive than ever - arguably too expensive for them to be wasting time inserting locator codes.

As a result, many governments have been looking for a more effective alternative. Over the last few years (stretching back over a decade), government technology experts have been working with XML, and previously SGML, as a way to capture structured content like legislation. Although the content has always been structured, XML also provides a standard syntax and format to markup content.

XML is a perfect fit for legislation for a number of reasons:

  • XML was designed for creating highly structured content and documents.
  • XML enables the legal language in documents to be easily reused.
  • XML enables content to be precisely validated, ensuring the accuracy of legal documents.
  • XML enables contextual searching of content, including the ability to track relevance to preceding discussions - this is particularly useful for large bodies of content.
  • XML marries metadata and content so that processing instructions (such as locator codes) can be acted upon.

    So, if XML offers all these benefits, why didn't more governments start using it years ago? Call it anglebracketphobia - a fear of the markup itself. After decades of locator codes, attorneys were hesitant to learn how to use XML syntax to do this kind of markup. The process of hand tagging a new markup language was too cumbersome. Something needed to be done to make XML simpler to create and manage.

    The turning point for government XML adoption came with the availability of XML authoring tools. These tools enable users to easily create XML by hiding the complexity of the markup language. XML authoring tools gave lawmakers the ability to create XML without knowing they were creating it; without worrying about document structure, validity, and well-formedness; and without the need to insert locator codes.

    Government legislation has been structured for decades, even centuries. XML provides a standard format in which to express that structure, but XML tools that hide the markup are what allowed legislators to move forward with the full adoption of XML for government legislation.

    How It Comes Together
    Despite slight variances, the core components of the legislation-creation systems being deployed are consistent - data model, repository, and authoring tool.

    Each system revolves around a DTD or XML Schema for the legislation data model. There have been attempts to come to terms on a standard for XML-based legislation, but so far without success. As a result, each jurisdiction typically develops its own.

    Each system has a repository. These are a mix of custom database applications and content management systems (CMS), both built on standard RDBMS platforms. Legislative content is stored as reusable XML components, often called "chunks" in the language of CMS. Although many state and federal government offices have invested heavily in content management systems for general content and document management, a smaller percentage are using these systems for XML legislative content.

    This brings up a question. If many governments already have a CMS that can reuse content, version it, and publish it, why isn't this good enough for legislation? Why not just use Word? It allows for styles and templates while enabling content chunks that can be reused. And end users are comfortable working in its familiar interface.

    The problem is that the ability to validate content is not inherent to a traditional, proprietary word processor file format like .doc.

    But unlike proprietary formats, XML is standard and vendor neutral - easily validated and managed by a host of different tools. However, governments interested in adopting XML for legislation faced a significant hurdle. They simply did not have the ability or interest in adopting a system that required users to mark up content by hand. As a result, XML adoption within modern legislation systems required the introduction of one more crucial component, an easy-to-use XML authoring tool.

    An effective XML authoring tool must provide a word processor-like authoring environment that includes features like spell checking, find & replace, revision marking, and keyboard and navigation behaviors. In addition, the authoring tool must understand the XML being created under the covers. This means it must be able to validate the XML content in real time, preventing authors from creating invalid documents that are not well formed.

    Word does let users save or publish to an XML format from the native .doc file format, but it doesn't support DTDs, nor does it allow for real-time validation against a schema. This process also requires transformations between the output XML and the target legislation XML. And although Word now also offers direct XML editing and validation of XML Schema-based documents (no support for DTDs), it can require additional coding efforts to hide the element tags and provide customized interfaces.

    The ability to run scripts and macros is crucial to building an XML authoring environment within a legislation system. For example, when a bill section is being inserted, it will have mandatory and optional elements as "children" and may have different context depending on its "parent" element. A script may be required to insert a section template complete with replacement text that prompts the author for required input.

    Some vendors offer a form-based approach to XML legislation creation. These forms generate XML and provide an interface that is familiar to the content creator. The trick is to offer forms that are a combination of common elements such as list boxes and combo boxes, along with rich content text boxes. There is a great deal of rich prose in government legislation that may not be generated by a standard form, but needs to be authored nonetheless and combined with the form element data to produce an XML document. This total environment - form elements plus rich content text boxes - can be a powerful authoring front end for those who need to create legislation.

    Once the content has been created, the last step is to publish it. In the case of the U.S. federal government, the GPO handles the publishing. The U.S. House of Representatives, for example, uses the XML authoring tool XMetaL for XML legislation creation. Once complete, the House then hands off a valid XML document to the GPO. The GPO system performs a transformation to add the locator codes to the document, ensuring that the final PDF is formatted correctly.

    In other environments, publishing may be as simple as applying an XSL or XSL:FO transformation against the legislative content to format for Web or PDF presentation.

    As legislative content builds up in governments where such legislative systems are being deployed, additional features of an XML legislation system will be useful. Differencing engines that work reasonably well on semi-structured content (word-processor files) can excel when tackling the differences between versions of XML documents. Likewise, contextual searching of XML archives may be significantly more accurate than generalized full-text searching.

    Despite a reputation for moving slowly, governments are demonstrating tremendous leadership in adopting XML for creating legislation. Other organizations, both public and private, can learn valuable lessons from the government example and the benefits XML is providing their publishing workflow.

    Structured government legislative content has finally found its format with XML. Now, with XML-enabled content management systems and XML authoring tools, governments can create powerful XML content quickly and efficiently.

    For more information about the GPO and the U.S. House of Representatives' use of XML for legislation, please visit http://xml.house.gov.

  • More Stories By Bryan Baker

    Bryan Baker is the product manager for XMetaL at Corel Corporation. Before joining Corel, Bryan worked at XML Global Technologies where he held the positions of director of product management and vice president of product marketing. Throughout his career, Bryan has been involved with several standards organizations including ebXML and UDDI. He has spoken at numerous industry events and has authored several XML technology papers. Bryan holds a degree in Computing Science from the University of British Columbia.

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