Mitre pitches Microformats for Defense use

BOSTON ' In its quest for net-centric operations, the Defense Department might benefit by using an emerging technology known as Microformats, engineers from Mitre suggested.

Microformats could be used to share information more easily as well as cut down on the number of point-to-point data-sharing connections made across DOD, said Rosamaria Morales, a senior information systems engineer at Mitre. Morales spoke at the XML 2007 conference this week in Boston.

In a nutshell, Microformats are schemas written for very narrowly defined purposes that can be placed within Hypertext Markup Language-based Web pages. For instance, hCard is a set of tags that can be used to define the data fields within a virtual business card. hCalendar is a set of tags that could define an upcoming event in a similar manner.

A content provider can fill some content within these tags and place the formatted information on a Web page or Really Simple Syndication feed. When encountered, that information can be piped into another application. For instance, the Firefox browser plug-in Operator alerts the user that the information is available, displays that information or even imports it into a contact database.

Mitre engineers produced a prototype program to show how DOD could use Microformats. In a hypothetical example, a number of military service units could post into a RSS Feed some small summaries of incidents that they were involved in, using the hCalendar Microformat. Mitre's application would poll these feeds and then build a timeline of events that happened over a set period of time. It could also pass the information to a mapping program, which could visually show where all the incidents took place.

There are a number of benefits with this approach, Morales said. One is that a common operating picture can be assembled without manually setting up a point-to-point connection beforehand. Once a set of Microformats are agreed upon, ad-hoc systems rapidly can be established by the user who needs the information. Also, no central database would be needed to house and coordinate the information.

Mary Ann Malloy, a Mitre lead information systems engineer, said that over the past few years Defense Department officials have expressed interest in using more Web technologies for sharing information, though also making sure the sharing is limited to appropriate personnel. So Mitre engineers have been looking for ways to offer controlled shared access environments, which is how the work on Microformats came about.

DOD could use some already-defined Microformats, such as iCalendar. Eventually DOD-specific Microformats could be developed, once the unique needs of the services are identified. Perhaps a government-specific site for the technology ' such as microformat.gov ' could be established to foster the growth of new formats, Malloy said.

In the public sphere, a number of Web applications already ingest Microformatted data, such as Google Maps and Google Earth, the Flickr photo sharing site, YouTube, and Timeline, a Web 2.0-styled widget for visualizing time-based events.

Microformats are also a small step in the ambitious goal of finding ways to identify the context of online data so that it can be processed by external systems. This is the goal of researchers working on the Semantic Web.

The Semantic Web "is fairly complicated for the average user," said Melissa Utzinger, a Mitre senior systems engineer. MicroFormats "are a way to chip away at the Semantic Web."

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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