N.Y. looks to expand use of XML

Project will examine technology's role in managing Web content

Researchers from the Center for Technology in Government are joining forces with New York state information technology officials to determine how Extensible Markup Language can improve Web site management.

As government Web sites have grown in size and complexity, managing content has become more laborious and costly.

Now researchers from the center, which is part of the State University of New York at Albany, are evaluating whether XML could become a viable alternative to HTML, which is the predominant language used to define the structure and layout of a Web document.

Although XML commonly supports effective data exchange, using it to manage Web content is less understood, researchers said. But XML, which describes the content and is more flexible than HTML, can dramatically improve workflow and reduce time, effort and costs related to Web site management, they added.

"It hasn't been talked about a lot, and I'm not sure really why," said Derek Werthmuller, the center's director of technology services. "Part of it is because there really isn't something to sell. XML is like HTML, everybody owns it."

The center is leading an 18-month project with the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Governor's Office of Employee Relations (GOER), which provides labor relations and employee training and development, to evaluate XML's advantages and shortcomings in Web site management.

Since July, five state government agencies have been participating in the test bed project, in which each agency will create a prototype XML Web site and business case model. Researchers will discuss findings at a Jan. 25 presentation and will continue to develop guidebooks and an online library of XML technical resources until next summer.

The center converted its HTML-managed Web site to an XML format several years ago.

Jim Costello, the center's Web application developer, said in 2001 it took one full-time employee to manage the site's 1,300 pages, including keeping up with links and changing and redesigning content. Now it takes one person only a quarter of the time to manage the Web site's 5,000 pages, he said.

Onnolee Smith, GOER's assistant director of workforce organization and development, said state agencies began exploring ways to improve Web accessibility and training needs more than a year ago. She said they view XML as a next-generation application that will help agencies manage the complexity, cost and effectiveness of their Web sites. The state wants Web site management to be more logical and sequential.

"Let's face it, there was no such thing as a Webmaster 10 years ago," Smith said. "There was not a set of skills for maintaining a Web site. There was not a thinking pattern on what Web communications were about."

Richard Pilarski, assistant director of GOER's management development unit, said that with the advancement of technology, there are opportunities to provide more functionality to a Web site, such as video streaming, which would be more cumbersome to manage in an HTML format.

XML provides more structure, efficiency and effectiveness for agencies that have limited resources for managing the increasing complexities of Web sites. He said the software they've inherited is like a tree whose branches have grown haphazardly.

"It gets so hard to trim that tree," he said. "It seems better to grow the hybrid from the concept that you have as opposed to having a concept for what the software ought to function like and look like, such as a template capability in XML."

The composition of the five participating state agencies, chosen from 14 proposals, are different in size, technologies and outsourcing support, among other factors, researchers said. A Web/IT employee, content developer and content reviewer, from each agency are participating in various workshops, training and homework.

Researchers said providing business analysis is crucial for employees to understand what they're trying to solve and how to approach it using their XML skills. Researchers also learned that many employees already have the technical skills needed to learn new techniques.

Donna Canestraro, the center's program manager, said the issue is not about technology but more about workflow management. The various stakeholders in a Web site, she said, are learning the intricacies of one another's duties. She said problems might occur in the conversion of word-processing documents to HTML or in the editing process.

Researchers said XML enables a smooth workflow. It provides a single place where changes are made and then sent to multiple channels for delivery or publication. Other benefits include more automation, fewer errors and less manual labor.

"It also enables the idea of reuse...by being able to structure your content in such a way that it has the ability to repurpose that information across your Web site in a variety of different places and, most important, do it accurately," Canestraro said.

New York state government officials believe the project could help other agencies make informed decisions about XML, provide templates and data for use and improve the technical skills of the IT workforce. They said it could help attract and retain employees, but they are aware of possible cultural resistance to change.

Pilarski said officials must describe how much better XML will be.

"And that symposium then will begin to explain to other agencies how much better the vision can be with this kind of capability compared to what you're struggling with at this time."


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Making the XML test bed

The Center for Technology in Government's XML Testbed Project involves five New York state agencies that are developing Extensible Markup Language Web site prototypes and business case models during an 18-month project.

The agencies include the Department of Civil Service, the Higher Education Services Corp., the Office of Cultural Education, the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Division of Housing and Community Renewal.

Sponsored by the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Governor's Office of Employee Relations, the project will assess the benefits and drawbacks of using XML to manage Web sites.

According to the center, XML's advantages include:

  • Improved workflow management from content creation to publication.
  • Increased productivity by reducing time, effort and costs.
  • Consistency of content across multiple pages, delivery formats and devices.
  • Consistent implementation of complementary Web standards, such as accessibility, through standardized delivery capabilities.

Derek Werthmuller, the center's director of technology services, said XML-powered Web sites might also be easier to archive and could have a longer shelf life than an HTML-archived Web site.

"In 10 years, are you going to have something that can view that?" he asked. "You're really storing the HTML, which is a mix of content and the presentation. With XML, you have more options. You can archive the content, or you can archive the Web presence — what does it look like from a user experience."

The center will present the project in Albany Jan. 25, and Tim Bray, co-inventor of XML and director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems, will deliver the keynote address. To register by Jan. 20, 2006, or find more information, visit www.ctg.albany.edu/ projects/xmltb-registration.

— Dibya Sarkar

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