E-forms team finds power partners
- By Patricia Daukantas
- Sep 10, 2003
Rick Rogers, E-forms Surveyor
Rick Rogers, chief executive officer of Fenestra Technologies Corp., has been digitizing Census Bureau projects for more than a decade.
His Germantown, Md., company developed the Generalized Instrument Design System to publish print and electronic forms for the bureau's most recent economic census [GCN, April 1, 2002, Page 43]. Since March, Rogers has headed a government-industry team called the E-Forms for E-Government pilot, which is evaluating the latest standards for publishing electronic forms.
Before founding Fenestra in 1996, Rogers directed software development at Washington Publishing Group of Gaithersburg, Md. There he managed the first two full-scale, production-quality electronic surveys for Census. He started his career as a database manager with the Data Interchange Standards Association of Alexandria, Va.
Rogers holds a bachelor's degree in history from Carleton College. He spent a semester at Keble College in Oxford, England.
His full name is Roy S. Rogers IV after his great-grandfather, a dentist in Hillsboro, Ohio. In 1937, a young performer from the nearby town of Duck Run took the name of his childhood dentist as a stage name and became famous as Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy.
GCN associate editor Patricia Daukantas interviewed Rogers by telephone.GCN: What progress have you made on the E-Forms for E-Government Pilot?
ROGERS: Our goals are to identify best practices and key metrics. The e-forms process has to support the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, the President's Management Agenda and the Performance Reference Model.
We're wrapping up the first phase and will publish an interim report soon. The first phase focused on Extensible Markup Language Schema, security and establishing a business case for using e-forms.
One of the ideas behind the Performance Reference Model is that performance needs to be measured. We're establishing metrics that can demonstrate success in an e-forms project, such as reducing the reporting burden and saving on processing electronic and paper forms.GCN: How did you choose the sample forms listed on the pilot team's Web site, at ww.fenestra.com/eforms?
ROGERS: We wanted to represent different classes of forms the federal government uses. Some forms are sent to citizens, some to businesses and some to government employees.
Also, some forms gather demographic, economic, statistical, regulatory or geospatial information. So we wanted to get a good, representative sample.
We've picked some forms just to go through the learning process. They aren't going to result in real production applications. We're not prototyping any sort of operational effort. We're using the forms as a touchstone to explore.
E-forms software has existed for almost as long as computers. But right now, e-forms technology is undergoing a couple of exciting transformations that I believe will make it more valuable to the federal government. XML and Web services mean more interoperability for data and software.GCN: How robust and secure are today's Web services?
ROGERS: There are a lot of real concerns about both reliability and security. A host of standards committees are working on these issues, and there are some competing standards.
I would say quite honestly that this is in a state of flux, which is why you see a lot of Web service-enabled pilots. The ones implemented in a production environment tend to be behind a firewall.
Before Web services can be used widely across the Internet, these standards bodies will have to finish their work, and the vendors will have to support their work. And that may be some time off. I would hesitate to predict how long, because the computer industry can move quickly on some things and slowly on others.GCN: What standards are you using?
ROGERS: The touchstone standard is XML Schema because the government envisions creating XML Schema repositories as a way to realize the Data Reference Model and as a principal way to eliminate redundancy across agencies. The idea is, you can't really spot redundancies until you have a basic inventory of the data elements you're collecting. The XML Schema registry is the place where you can see the complete spectrum of data elements.
So e-forms products must support XML Schema natively to consume the federal schemas that are coming out of the registries and also to ensure unambiguous and standardized interoperability of the collected data among agencies and programs.
Other standards of interest are XForms and Scalable Vector Graphics. Where XML Schema promotes interoperability of collected data, XForms promotes interoperability of the e-forms themselves.
E-forms include a user interface or presentation layer, and by design XForms is agnostic about this. XForms can bind to any presentation layer. So, for example, you could bind an XForms document to HTML and have your presentation client be just a standard Web browser.
But HTML is somewhat limited in its design capabilities, so a new standard called SVG [Scalable Vector Graphics] has been developed that is much more flexible for defining graphical appearance. You could bind XForms with SVG for a much more powerful and accurate presentation layer than is possible in HTML. Also, SVG has the advantage of being typographically sophisticated enough to produce richly designed paper forms from the same metadata as the electronic forms.
SVG is a fully open, voluntary standard, and there is an Office of Management and Budget directive to use voluntary standards as much as possible. I suspect the federal government will need to run paper and electronic forms processes simultaneously for many years, maybe even decades.GCN: What is it like working with a group of 35 or 40 public- and private-sector officials?
ROGERS: This is one of the first teams of this nature that I've led, so it's a new experience for me. But based on other teams that I've participated in, the challenges are pretty much the same. It takes a while for teams to jell, for people to lay out their positions within the group and indicate which areas they're interested in.
The e-forms for e-gov team is really performing right now, and that's been rewarding. There's been a broad range of perspectives represented. I believe everyone has set aside their vendor issues or their agency-specific issues, and everyone's done a good job of focusing on what would be best for the entire federal government.GCN: How does the e-forms pilot fit in with the President's Management Agenda and the overall federal enterprise architecture?
ROGERS: Forms lie at the heart of many government processes. Much of the data collected by the government is collected via forms. So building metadata-driven authoring and data collection is an opportunity to reorganize the government's data collection activities along lines of business. It will accomplish other goals'eliminating redundancy and promoting data sharing.GCN: What's the status of GIDS at the Census Bureau?
ROGERS: From my perspective, GIDS for the 2002 economic census was a great success. Census used GIDS to author 650 10- to 15-page forms in both paper and electronic format in a fully metadata-driven environment. The forms went to 3.5 million businesses at about 5 million locations. So far 324,000 establishments have reported electronically, and 70 percent of large companies have reported electronically.
Right now we're fine-tuning GIDS to reflect our lessons learned from the 2002 economic census. One of the principal lessons is that for large companies that report on large and complex forms, importing from existing electronic records is key.
We're continuing to fine-tune GIDS for all the Census Bureau surveys, not just the economic census. And we're hoping that GIDS will be adapted by other agencies.GCN: Are you still planning to make the GIDS code open-source?
ROGERS: The federal government has already invested money in developing GIDS. If we take it open-source, it's a way for other agencies to leverage that investment. Agencies can tailor and extend the code base to meet their own needs.