Though historically a place where ink meets paper, the Government Printing Office now produces nearly all of the country’s most important documents in digital form and is currently pursuing technologies to broaden its reach across agencies and to the public.
Chief Technology Officer Richard Davis said efforts are under way to migrate troves of digital information in the Federal Digital System created in 2006 to Extensible Markup Language (XML). The first of which was the fiscal 2013 budget released Monday via a collection of documents published by GPO. The rest of GPO’s data will migrate during fiscal 2012. The move will essentially allow users to use and pass on the information more easily and could eventually allow GPO to generate revenue through new digital products.
“We’re creating opportunities not only in terms of what we release and make available but the ability for people to take that content and carry on with it and do other things,” Davis said. “We have a team actively engaged on the XML side. GPO is a leader on the authentication effort. We see XML as the next logical place to go.”
XML defines a set of rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable. Although the design of XML focuses on documents, it is widely used for the representation of arbitrary data structures, for example in web services.
“XML can be handled by a machine,” said Brand Niemann, Senior Enterprise Architect and Data Scientist who serves on AOL Government’s Board of Contributors. “The idea is publish once, but the uses are many. PDF limits uses.” (Niemann elaborates on XML and semantic search in a related story.)
Davis said, “We want people to be able to have access to the source data code to repurpose it and recreate information in ways we haven’t even thought of. The use cases are driving the technology need.”
He added:”There’s a big ROI with XML. There’s no way to have a staff that can do all the different things XML can do. … It stands the test of time.”
Davis also said GPO plans to make greater use of Application Program Interfaces, sets of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications. A good API makes it easier to develop a program by providing all the building blocks. A programmer then puts the blocks together.
Davis offered the following recent example regarding an API of the Federal Register:
“Someone in Germany immediately took that content to track regulations on polar bear migration. … They couldn’t have done that without the XML content and this freely available API. We’re creating opportunities not only in terms of what we release and make available for reference purposes but the ability for people to take content and carry on with it and do other things.”
On Monday, GPO logged approximately 53 thousand visits in the first 24 hours to the first mobile app for the Federal Budget. The number of visits to the Budget FY 2013 app eclipses the total number of visits to GPO’s first app, the Mobile Member Guide for the 112th Congress, which has had about 50 thousand visits since its release in November. The FY 2013 Budget app is the second app that GPO has developed.
Down the road, Davis added, these technological advances could mean additional revenue streams for GPO. Though there could be myriad benefits, all of this won’t be without significant effort. Davis said the biggest challenge will be “lifecycle management” due to multiple mobile devices and other issues.
“In the early days of the Internet I think there were some assumptions that you could just convert content to digital format and put it up on a web site. It was cheap and easy and you were done with it,” he said. “The reality is that it needs to be managed throughout its lifecycle. There’s not only the aspect of making it available today, but preserving it, refreshing it, migrating it and making sure it’s available for multiple devices. Tablet PCs, Androids, iPhones. User expectations are going to vary and continue to evolve. We need to make sure that we make the content available to the widest possible audience. … And we have the capability to go back and transform that content in a manner that 10 or 15 years ago we just didn’t have.”