New South Wales warns of XML silos

XML a great enabler, but it use needs careful governance, Australian IT pros say

XML may be seen as the holy grail of information interoperability, but the New South Wales government’s experience with the technology warns of how the information silos of yesteryear can be repeated.

During a presentation at this year’s OASIS Open Standards conference in Sydney, NSW Department of Commerce information architecture manager Ken Bullock says XML is seen as a universal data interchange but “where you can come unstuck is in finding the meaning of the data”.

“XML is easy to use but is only effective if done consistently [so] the governance of XML is what we’re about,” Bullock says, adding that real interoperability occurs at the semantic level.

“Semantics is conveying the meaning of information and the processes experienced in information [therefore] is a business issue,” he says. “Information is a corporate asset anyone using XML needs to understand.”

The NSW government’s Chief Information Office, headed by CIO Paul Edgecumbe, is charged with the daunting task of integrating and rationalising the IT systems of the state’s 180-odd agencies, most of which are separate. Bullock says IT expenditure in NSW is “well over A$1 billion”, including A$250 million for telecommunications services.

“To deliver services to 180 agencies the expectation is that we do this in an integrated way,” he says, adding agencies like health, juvenile justice, and police are all running different systems.

“You choose a scheme but if the other department isn’t using it you will need to map [the data],” he says. “It would be nice to get some consistency.”

Bullock spoke of “islands of XML” arising from uncontrolled use of standards, no consistent approach for defining and using XML and agency XML resources not being “easily discoverable or reusable”.

“In our experience [you need to] prioritise, compromise and publicise,” Bullock says. “XML is not in isolation. XML is not just a technical issue and a collaborative approach is needed — it’s more than XML.”

The department developed an interim system in-house, with one structure for content which includes 80 applications, 250 standards and “it works”, says Bullock.

Although “fairly straightforward”, Bullock conceded it is “not a lot in use”. But, as a result, NSW is now beginning to share data and applications across sectors. “The best we can do at the moment is [encourage] voluntary adoption of standards between agencies,” he says. He adds that in future this may be mandated. “Governments and large enterprises have the same issues, which are about more that just XML for interoperability.”

NSW is also “busily wrapping” its legacy systems with XML. Bullock is adamant: “If you adhere to standard XML it will become a means for systems to interoperate”.

Adding to the challenges is the necessity for systems to interoperate across jurisdictions. For example, if an aged pensioner attempts to renew a NSW driver’s licence, this involves agencies cooperating. As such, NSW has asked the federal government for funding to enable interoperability.

When asked which department he considers to be leading examples of data interoperability, Bullock said NSW Police has done a good job with its mainframe migration.

“We supported the NSW Police’s mainframe replacement to XML because if they could make it work anyone could,” Bullock says, adding that in April this year the NSW Police began an XML management program.

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