Paper Cut

XML e-forms empty the in-box

The Office of Management and Budget last year began requiring all Exhibit 300 data to be tagged in Extensible Markup Language—a change that distressed more than a few agency planners.

They had been submitting business cases for their systems projects as word processing files or on paper.

Although XML has been touted as a universal format for data exchange among disparate systems, its use so far has been limited mostly to specialized XML tools.

Several software vendors, however, came to the rescue by making their standard products XML-capable.

Microsoft Corp., which had helped OMB set up a workflow system to process XML-encoded business cases, brought out a beta version of its InfoPath electronic forms design software for OMB.

Microsoft’s federal office in Washington worked out an Exhibit 300 version that could be filled in with Microsoft Word and saved as an XML document, tagged to OMB’s specifications.

InfoPath, as well as the new LiveCycle suite of products from Adobe Systems Inc., can graft XML capabilities onto office software already present on most government computers. Agencies such as the IRS and Government Accountability Office use Adobe Portable Document Format extensively to capture paper documents in secure electronic form.

LiveCycle lets agencies use PDF to create electronic forms.

Nevada’s State Welfare Division found another use for PDF: to speed workflow, said Gary Stagliano, deputy administrator for program and field operations.

The division handles food stamp, child support and energy assistance programs for low-income citizens. Nevada’s 500 case managers used to fill out the forms by hand and mail them to a single facility for data entry and processing.

With the help of integrator Covansys Corp. of Farmington Hills, Mich., and IBM Corp., the state built a workflow system for the information.

Because state courts had specified formats for the casework forms, the state could not buy simple e-form software. Instead, it used Adobe’s Accelio Forms Designer, which rendered PDFs that exactly reproduced the dimensions of the paper versions.

Caseworkers use the latest version of Adobe Reader, 6.01, to fill in a form.

The PDF reader has hidden features that make it useful for organizational workflow, Adobe’s Lori DeFurio said. Using scripting languages, it can perform calculations on numbers entered into certain fields and automatically route a form to the correct party, when used in conjunction with Adobe’s workflow server.

The rising demand for XML also prompted Adobe to incorporate more XML-handling features. Earlier versions of its forms design software used only Adobe’s schema, or dictionary of the tags defining each data element. Middleware was necessary to extract data from a PDF in the format specified by a government agency’s own schema.

The latest version of the Forms Designer software, released in June, lets a user import a schema directly into an e-form design from either an XML Schema Definition file or a sample document.

The full schema appears in a box within the workspace. After adding a field to the form, the user can drag an element name from the schema box onto that field, binding it to a specific XML tag.
After a form is filled out, it can be routed not only in the original PDF format for record-keeping, but also in a plain text file with all the data encoded within XML tags. The data can then be shared with external systems that understand that particular agency’s XML schema.

A designer can even drag and drop a Web service into a form, tapping live data such as spell-checkers, phone directories, real-time currency exchange rates, or any other service found on the Web or created by the agency itself.

In much the same way that Adobe’s Forms Designer uses PDF as a basis for XML e-forms, Microsoft’s InfoPath can open forms in the latest versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Access, in addition to InfoPath itself.

Susie Adams, principal technology specialist for Microsoft’s federal practice, said the information filled out on InfoPath forms is saved in XML and can be routed to Web services, databases or other applications accepting XML files. Like Adobe’s new offering, InfoPath can use the customer’s own schema.

Interact with forms

InfoPath also lets developers make their forms interact with Web services. It can query an agency’s Web services to find all the data fields required for input. A developer can then drag those fields into the form being designed.

“Once you’ve set up the Web service, which is the complex part of your business logic, setting up the form itself is very straightforward,” said Philo Janus of Micro-soft’s federal unit.

InfoPath comes standalone or with an enterprise license of the professional edition of Microsoft Office 2003. The InfoPath application embodies both a forms designer and a viewer, although a designer can also make InfoPath-compliant forms directly within Word or Excel.

The idea of encoding Exhibit 300 fields in an InfoPath form came from Microsoft’s work with OMB, Adams said.

When agencies submitted their Exhibit 300 documents as Word files, OMB’s analysts would print them out and mark them up by hand.

“It was a lot of paper. I was amazed they could even get through it in the time frame they had,” Adams said.

OMB subsequently contracted with Microsoft to build an XML decision-support system. The agency published a schema specifying how agencies should tag each piece of information. Now XML-encoded Exhibit 300 data passes directly to other internal OMB forms and reports, with no manual intervention.

Using a beta version of InfoPath, Microsoft encoded a Word version of Exhibit 300 with the OMB schema. Adams said agencies “could just open it up, enter the information and e-mail the XML to OMB.”

She said about 20 agencies have downloaded the sample form from Microsoft. BearingPoint Inc. of McLean, Va., also incorporated it into the integrator’s own federal capital planning application, called the Enterprise Planning, Investment Control and Collaboration Solution, Adams said.

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