XML group updating federal design guidebook

The General Services Administration, the Homeland Security Department and the Federal CIO Council are collectively revamping a widely used federal guide for creating Extensible Markup Language-based schemas. Wednesday will be the last chance for agencies to influence at least the first draft of this document.

The revision will bring the XML Developers Guide, first drafted in 2002, in line with more recently adopted best practices, according to Mark Crawford, a senior research fellow for LMI Consulting of McLean, Va. LMI supports GSA’s Office of Governmentwide Policy for the effort, which is undertaking the work along with the Federal CIO Council’s XML Community of Practice and DHS’ Metadata Center of Excellence.

The research firm will present a report on the group’s progress Wednesday at the monthly XML Community of Practice meeting. Afterward, the group will go into serious writing mode, Crawford said. On Oct. 19, they will submit a draft of the revised document to the XML group. If approved, it will be handed up to the council’s Emerging Technology Subcommittee for possible submission to the Office of Management and Budget as proposed policy.

At least one other government technology group has taken notice of the document. The Intelligence Community Metadata Working Group Staff submitted a paper detailing its issues with the new draft. Chaired by Tim West of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the working group represents 15 U.S. intelligence federal agencies. The group now estimates that the changes in the guidelines would affect up to 35 projects within its agencies.

GSA oversaw the first draft of the guidelines, which was primarily written for developers creating XML schemas for agency programs. The idea behind the document was to encourage agencies to create schemas that could work well together and ease exchange of data. A number of agencies have already made use of the first version of the rule book.

The group has been meeting over the summer and discussing ways to improve the draft. The trick is to come up with a set of rules normative enough to develop schemas, yet flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of uses, Crawford said.

The group is taking a number of existing guidelines as the basis for the revamped document, including the Universal Business Language from the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards. It will also use material from the U.N. Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business and borrow from individual agency guidelines from the Department of the Navy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the IRS and others.

The updated guidelines — to be renamed Federal XML Naming and Design Rules and Guidelines — emphasize a modular approach to developing federal schemas, Crawford said.

A modular approach will allow developers to construct a schema with bits of other schemas. These other schemas can come from other federal agencies, the agency’s internal department or from outside standards bodies. The group is also proposing to create four Federal Common Schemas, a group of common terms that could be used by all agencies.

Modularity was in the first iteration of the guidebook, but “it will be much better defined [in this version]. Before the concept of was loosely conceptual. Now we have real specifics,” Crawford said.

The guidelines will also settle questions on versioning and how to handle namespaces, or the naming of schemas. In addition to just supplying the rules, the revision will also provide guidelines that agencies can use to craft their own guidelines, Crawford said.

The IC Working Group outlined a number of concerns with the revision in a paper submitted last July.

“We do not believe this document presently meets the needs of the [intelligence community]. The proposed rules are too restrictive for the many applications of XML currently in use or under development,” the paper states. The paper also cited a number of specific concerns, such as the banning of acronyms as schema elements. The group noted that in many cases, an acronym of a program was not classified while the full title is classified.

“We’ve taken a look at those concerns and tried to alleviate them to the maximum extent possible,” Crawford said.

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