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Government urges slow road to XML

The investigative arm of Congress says federal agencies might want to hold back before adopting the Web standard, noting a lack of formal governmental policy or standard.

A new report is cautioning federal agencies to go slowly in adopting XML.

The General Accounting Office found that, in the absence of any formal governmental policy or standard on XML, federal agencies might want to hold back before adopting the Web standard. But the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, did recommend that the government develop an overarching policy so agencies could take advantage of the new technology.

XML, or Extensible Markup Language, is a set of data definitions that has come into vogue because it promises to make information available across a number of computing systems that otherwise might not be compatible. A sort of a dictionary of dictionaries, it helps define various elements of a Web document and the relationships between them.

XML would seem to be an ideal technology for the government because it could help various and diverse branches quickly exchange data. For instance, crime data could be easily transferred and accessed by multiple law enforcement agencies.

But the technology's wide-open nature may be a reason why the government may not be ready to take advantage of it just yet, the GAO report said.

"Although agencies need flexibility to tailor XML-based systems to meet their unique needs, they risk building and buying systems that will not work with each other in the future if their efforts do not take place within the context of a well-defined strategy," the report states.

The problem, the GAO found, is that while technical definitions of XML have been ironed out, the business definitions are, for the most part, still lagging. Some agencies have been trying to help create the definitions that they need; for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency has been working with state environmental agencies to develop standards for environmental information.

see special report: Web services: The new buzz But in most cases, the specialized definitions needed are either not yet ready, or not sufficient, for government use, the GAO report said. As an example, it pointed to a workgroup that's been trying to develop a set of human resources standards for the Office of Personnel Management. While a version of HR-related XML is being worked on by a nonprofit consortium, the standard has only two approved data definitions, the GAO said. Meanwhile, the government workgroup has created its own list of 984 data elements, some of which will likely not be included in the public standard because they are specific to government use.

Another potential problem the GAO pointed out was that, in the absence of overriding government policy on XML, different agencies could come up with different standards, defeating the whole point of XML.

The GAO report recommends that the director of the Office of Management and Budget work with the federal CIO Council--an interagency forum for federal chief information officers--and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to figure out a governmentwide strategy for XML adoption.

The CIO Council has already been working on a pilot for a registry program, but it isn't ready yet. The report suggests that the pilot be worked into the broader program developed.

The report also advocates that the government create a registry for XML data elements and structures, and encourage agencies to use it. "As elements of a government XML vocabulary became standardized through this registry on a de facto basis, the government would be in a better position at a later date to revisit the question of what commercial standards and vocabularies to officially endorse," the report said.