I’m watching the inauguration activity today all day (not getting much work done) and getting caught up in the optimism and history of it all. And what does this have to do with XML you ask? It’s a stretch, but I am giddy from the festivities, so bare with me please. I think there is a big role for XML and structured technologies in this paradigm shift, albeit XML will be quietly doing it’s thing in the background as always.

In 1986, when SGML, XML‘s precursor, was being developed, I worked for the IRS in Washington. I was green, right out of college. My Boss, Bill Davis, said I should look into this SGML stuff. I did. I was hooked. It made sense. We could streamline the text applications we were developing. I helped write the first DTD in the executive branch (the first real government one was the ATOS DTD from the US Air Force, but that was developed slightly before the SGML standard was confirmed, so we always felt we were pretty close to creating the actual first official DTD in the federal government). Back then we were sending tax publications and instructions to services like CompuServe and BRS, each with their own data formats. We decided to try to adopt structured text technology and single source publishing to make data available in SGML to multiple distribution channels. And this was before the Web.  That specific system has surely been replaced, but it saved time and enabled us to improve our service to taxpayers. We thought the approach was right for many govenrment applications  and should be repeated by other agencies.

So, back to my original point. XML has replaced SGML and is now being used for many government systems including electronic submission of SEC filings, FDA applications, and for the management of many government records. XML has been mentioned as a key technology in the overhaul that is needed in the way the government operates. Obama also plans to create a cabinet level position of CTO, part of the mission of which will be to promote inter-agency cooperation through interchange of content and data between applications formatted in a common taxonomy. He also intends to preserve the open nature of the internet and its content, facilitate publishing important government information and activities on the Web in open formats, and to enhance the national information system infrastructure. Important records are being considered for standardization, such as health and medical records, as well as many other ways we interact with the government. More info on this administration’s technology plan can be found at . Sounds like a job, at least in part, for XML!

I think it is great and essential that our leaders understand the importance of smartly structured data. There is already a lot of XML expertise through the various government offices, as well as a strong spirit of corporation on which we can build. Anyone who has participated in industry schema application development, or other common vocabulary design efforts, knows how hard it is to create a “one-size-fits-all” data model. I was fortunate enough to participate briefly in the development and implementation of SPL, the Standard Product Label (see http://www.fda.gov/oc/datacouncil/spl.html) schema for FDA drug labels which are submitted to the FDA for approval before the drug product can be sold. This is a very well defined document type that has been in use for years. It still took many months and masterful consensus building to finalize this one schema. And it is just one small piece in the much larger information architecture.  It was a lot of effort from many people within and outside the government.  But now it is in place, working and being used.

So, I am bullish on XML in the government these days. It is a mature, well understood, powerful technology with wide adoption, there are many established civilian and defense  examples across the government. I think there is a very big role for XML and related technology in the aggressive, sweeping change promised by this administration. Even so, these things take time. </>