The Origin of Species of Information

Happy Birthday Chuck!  You've given me so much!    Happy Birthday Chuck! You’ve given us so much!

Last night’s Philadelphia XML Users Group was a pleasant mix of the old and the new: Jim Caine of Jaquette Consulting revisited an earlier talk on content reuse that touched on DITA and Documentum among other things.

Named for today’s birthday boy, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is a simple XML application (in the xml sense) that models information around authoring units like topics and references instead of publishing like documents and books.  It’s meant to be extensible (in the OO sense) rather than definitive.  Somehow DITA never crossed my path until a few months ago, but it represents another step towards the Grail of structured authoring/publishing that I worked on 15 years ago.

Jim’s project involved moving an insurance institute’s learning resources into a single repository and allowing them to create a variety of products (real books, eLearning, flash cards, etc.) from the same content.  The project started last year; Jim first presented on the project back then and gave the group a look at how practice deviated from theory.  He did some really smart things to facilitate reuse like referencing XML wrappers for external entities like images. This allows reuse of data and the metadata.  Kudos to WordPress for a similar albeit not XML approach to images and galleries. I’ll post a link to his presentation when it hits the web.

Turns out that authoring structured content is still the hard part.  The original plan involved a Word plug-in to allow authors to create valid structured content at the very beginning.  This good idea hit some bumps because of vendor support issues and was the hardest conceptual change to make in the whole process.  Authors used to writing a single document now wrote up to a dozen separate learning objects, a subtype of topic.  Deja vu all over again.

A very few actors in the content creation process have a very lively editorial cycle.  We’re talking major rewrites, not “you missed a comma here” kinds of things.   This wasn’t a problem back on RDMS: We dealt more with multiple authors and a review process than the more traditional author/editor interaction going on here.  Even in legal review and approval, I’m used to all actors being subject matter experts, often getting more experty the further along in the lifecycle you go.  Not so in this case–and publishing in general I’d guess.

Here comes more deja-vu-all-over-again:  The plugin couldn’t handle the actors’ heavy dependence on Word collaboration features like Track Changes.  It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security by an oh-so-pretty model for the final product of the authoring process. That Emerald City architectural view of content hides all the information and processing necessary to get to that end.  This particular problem has sparked some heavy flirtation between authoring, wikis, and DITA happening in my head, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Jim’s use of XML Applications (in the Documentum sense) worked well with DITA’s topics and maps.  No big surprise there, but the marriage of DITA maps and Documentum virtual documents came with the usual toilet-seat-down relationship problems, especially because of webtop’s weak handling of virtual documents.  A post-editorial staff using XMetaL bears the brunt of the bickering, so authors are  left to worry about intellectual property, not scaffolding, as it should be.

Most of my work lately has centered on document dumping grounds.  Records management, eDiscovery, and transactional content management don’t concern themselves with the processes of actually making content.  It was great to see what’s happening on the other side again, and I’ve been stupid for not attending this group sooner.  Such is the life of a freelance.

One special note: The Users Group had brownies for Valentine’s Day.  Mmm, tasty!  I suggested that publicizing food at meetings might be some great marketing.  It might also require a bigger conference room for several reasons!


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