August 14, 2009

Balisage 2009 - XForms and Genericode at NARA

On Thursday, August 13th, Quyen L. Nguyen (National Archives and Records Administration) and Betty Harvey, (Electronic Commerce Connection) presented their paper entitled Agile Business Objects Management Application for Electronic Records Archive Transfer Process. [Submitted Paper]. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) processes a very high volume of documents from most government agencies in their Electronic Records Archive (ERA), designed for long term preservation and access to digital objects. Quyen Nguyen explained that ERA has many challenges including dealing with a number of different media types (data types) and an ever-increasing volume of submissions. Archival Business Object requirements include the standard CRUD capabilities plus Versioning and Searching. NARA made the decision years ago to store documents in XML and transform to PDF. XML is used at business, communication and storage levels.

Management of Authority Lists (aka controlled vocabularies, aka code lists) is a big issue for NARA and other agencies. List changes should not require coding changes or re-compiling. NARA submission forms have fields that are conditionally optional or required, with inter-dependency between fields. Depending on state, some fields need to be insensitive to input and other fields need to be displayed or hidden.

The traditional HTML with JSP approach is too subject to code list changes. Schema changes cause a recompile of JSP code. It is harder to programmatically determine when to validate data input. Use of xsd:enumeration and annotations is inadequate for representing complex, multi-column code lists.

In contrast, according to Betty Harvey, XForms offer NARA many benefits such as modularity, reuse, separate evolvability, consistency of error messages, data integrity, performance, easier data exchange as XML, etc. The ERA team has implemented a comprehensive XForms solution by leveraging genericode from the OASIS Code List Representation Technical Committee. Their solution which includes an Orbeon XForms server provides an intuitive archive submission authoring system. The verbose genericode files is processed into smaller “fat free” versions via a custom XSLT. User form interactions can control dynamic form changes, such as which code list to display, fields that appear or are hidden, and so on. XForms Bind is pretty powerful and permit variables in XPath expressions.

Use of genericode in particular and, to a lesser extent, XForms are of interest to me personally so I know I’ll be reading their paper. Betty Harvey has also made her XForm Controls examples available. She also prepared her slides in XML using XSLT to conform to the W3C Slidy presentation library.

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