Tuesday, May 15, 2007

XML: Implications and Opportunities

Everybody's heard of XML and all the hype that comes with it. But what is XML? And what does it mean for publishers?

Often, content is authored, edited and published using a markup form that only controls style and presentation and not meaning. Examples of this are word processor files and web pages. XML offers the chance to capture the meaning of the content in the markup. Instead of this:

Allen, Thomas B. Vanishing Wildlife of North America. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1974.

We have this:

<author>Allen, Thomas B.</author>
<title>Vanishing Wildlife of North America</title>
<name>National Geographic Society</name>
<place>Washington, D.C.</place>

From that XML we could generate the same citation or any of a number of other formats. But, with this XML, we can also find our content with searches such as "author=Allen" and so on.

The key to understanding XML and it's implications for publishers is "Content Use and Reuse." Let's look at a scenario from a project on which I'm currently working.

Current awareness (news) content is published daily. It was originally written in a proprietary markup format, for which there were lots of in-house custom tools. All the editorial staff know the markup language. New hires have a long learning curve. We replaced the proprietary markup with an XML form. We hid the XML behind a word-processor interface and publish in a variety of forms (old and new) from the XML. This is feasible because of the open standards basis of XML and the freely available tools for managing XML. But really, it's just economics. Saved money. A publisher embarking on this kind of restructuring can use any of a number of standardized content models as a starting point: ODF, DocBook, DITA, etc.

The real opportunity comes in the new ways the content can be extended and also reused. More can be done to describe the content, down to a very granular level. The XML form of the content can contain not only the content, but metadata describing the content. This might not appear in any one published version, but can be used for searching and linking applications. It can be published in many ways on different media through simple reformatting.

Semantic markup is the next big step. We capture not only the metadata, but also describe the "aboutness" of the content. From simple keywords to linked thesauri, to external, linked ontologies, we can capture many levels of domain meaning for the content.

Back to the GWU Summer Publishing Institute...

So, getting back to the GWU Summer Publishing Institute, and the topic on which I need to speak, "Agile vs. Traditional: Methods for Building a Software Infrastructure."

It seems to me that, after exploring what Agile Publishing might mean, it's clear that an Agile Publisher needs a software infrastructure that supports the key tenets. I take that to mean a content management and publishing infrastructure that supports the tenets of Agile Publishing:

  • Customer satisfaction by rapid, continuous delivery of useful product
  • Working product delivered frequently
  • Working product is the principal measure of progress
  • Even late changes in requirements are welcomed
  • Close, daily, cooperation between business people and developers
  • Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication
  • Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
  • Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
  • Simplicity
  • Self-organizing teams
  • Regular adaptation to changing circumstances
So what kind of framework is that? I'm envisioning a content management and publishing system that easily pushes out releases on a frequent basis, allows content and structural changes to be readily made, enhances communication between participants, enables remote meetings, provides templates for good design, has easy-to use process and product review tools, enhances workflow with loose rules, and can be easily adapted to changes.

This goes a ways beyond a content management system, or any publishing system on the market today because it demands flexibility and adds project collaboration tools.

In "The Emerging Art of Agile Publishing", XML.COM, 3/8/2006, Michael Fitzgerald makes some specific suggestions about how to be an Agile Publisher:
  • "Build real trust through constant, informal communication
  • Interleave work processes between writers, editors
  • Share work openly, don't store it in secret silos
  • Store source files in an online repository and give all members of the team access to it
  • Agree on and share tools to reduce the waste of format conversions
  • Carve up your work into small, easily consumed and exchanged pieces
  • Keep track of what you are doing daily with some other suitable tool
  • Publish your work early and often, charge a little something and get free reviews
  • Let Herb do things his own way, but not on your team"
I would add to that, "Keep it simple".

So what software is needed? First and formost, a communications tool. Especially in these days of telecommuting, getting face-time is hard. I like instant messaging and the Skype product in particular. Skype has a secure chat and telephony in one kit. Second, a content management system that will permit easy and frequent releases of product. There are many of these, including several open source ones. Third, open project management. The basecamp.com approach seems nice as does the offering from project.net. I'm personally in favor of an open project document repository for sharing project related materials. This could also be used for openly managing project management materials, such as an MS project plan.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Agile Publishing -- Continuous attention to excellence, good design, and simplicity

Principles Number 8 and 9 of the Agile Software Development approach . What do these mean for an Agile Publisher?

As with some of the previous principles, this is partly just good business and I feel these are all closely related. Simplicity => Good Design => Excellence.

Especially when developing a complex product with many content components, it is easy to design an overly complex, difficult to build and maintain product. Simplicity is the name of the game here. Also, good design -- keeping sight of both the immediate need and the growth room and designing with these in mind.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Agile Publishing -- Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted

Number 7 of the Agile Software Development approach . What does this mean for an Agile Publisher?

It's all about trust. This also could be said of every project everywhere. There's nothing different here for an Agile publisher than for any other development effort. Michael Fitzgerald ("The Emerging Art of Agile Publishing", March 8, 2006, XML.COM) posits these tenets:

  • People must be trusted
  • Fewer but more competent people are needed
  • Organizations must live with the decisions developers make
These are key points. Trust inspires dedication, dedication reduces numbers of people. But (I hear you cry), organizations must live with the decisions developers make? Hard to swallow, that. But remember, a key point of the Agile approach is that the development team includes stakeholders. It is partly their role to ensure that the decisions the developers make are in the best interests of the product and the client. A better product will come of it.