Written by Andy Greener Posted on March 5, 2009
Andy Greener is a software architect at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs with responsibility for, among other things, interoperability and the use of standards. He is also strategy architect for HMRC's Company Tax online service, which has mandated the use of XBRL for the accounts and tax computation components of all company tax returns filed after March 31, 2011. He is a Chartered Engineer and Chartered Information Technology Professional with over 27 years experience as a software engineer.
This is the third installment of a three-part post. In Part 1, Andy looked at why it’s much more difficult for computers to discern meaning than it is for humans. In Part 2, he showed how display- and meaning-oriented markup languages culminate in the Semantic Web, which opens the information content in web pages to intelligent applications. In this final installment, Andy discusses how, in the financial world, Inline XBRL serves both human and computer in ways best tailored to each of them.
Over the course of 2008, the XII Rendering Working Group produced the Inline XBRL Specification, now an XII Candidate Recommendation -- which means it is deemed capable of implementation (and already implementations have appeared in commercial products). The purpose of Inline XBRL is to allow XBRL marked-up data to appear in HTML documents in such a way that the XBRL mark-up is ignored by the browser, while leaving the essence of the report, the data, to be presented to the human reader in the manner described by the surrounding HTML mark-up. A two-for-the-price-of-one capability that serves both human and computer in the way best tailored to each of them.
Inline XBRL is not just fragments of XBRL mark-up embedded in HTML -- there are some technical and rendering constraints that make this approach too naive -- but it is similar to, and easily transformable into, real XBRL. A software processor conforming to the Inline XBRL Specification can take an Inline XBRL financial report published as a web page (or set of web pages) and turn it into a complete and correct XBRL document. Inline XBRL is "orthogonal" to the other mark-up standards of the mainstream Semantic Web -- it is possible to identify a data item as both a piece of XBRL data, with all its associated meaning defined by a particular taxonomy, and the subject or object of a "traditional" piece of Semantic Web mark-up. This is where the general Semantic Web fuses with the specialised “Financial Semantic Web” made possible by Inline XBRL.
What does this mean for the world of business and financial analysis? At present, company financial reports may be published on the web, marked up as HTML, or in a PDF document "black box" (the Rendering Working Group have yet to address Inline XBRL for PDF, but it remains a possibility). Neither format is amenable to analysis by intelligent software, but imagine what becomes possible when those same reports are published as Inline XBRL, complete with general semantic mark-up: human readers will still be able to Google for information keywords or browse the reports themselves, but intelligent software applications will be able to make general semantic associations with their content and apply specialised analysis based on the financial semantics revealed in the Inline XBRL mark-up. An intelligent software application will be able to associate other family members of a person named in a news report, say, with the published directorships of a number of companies, whose financial status will then be immediately available for analysis. A simple sweep of company websites or of a regulator's public web repository will be all that is necessary to get up-to-the-minute financial information for a range of companies. There will be no need to subscribe to expensive specialist data feeds from organisations who rekey and sell information; you’ll get it direct from the horse's mouth instead.
Of course, Inline XBRL is not a magic bullet -- there will always be a place for the one-way rendering of XBRL marked-up data (or any other kind of marked-up data for that matter) into HTML or some other human-consumable form. Not every document needs to serve a dual purpose, especially if the source XBRL document is already available. But web publishing is an increasingly popular option for businesses in an information-hungry world that demands instant transparency and openness for regulators, customers, and investors alike. Inline XBRL is the ideal vehicle for this.
And Inline XBRL scores another benefit over "traditional" one-way rendering methods. It places the responsibility for the look & feel of the document rendering where it belongs, with the producer of the document, and not with the author of the rendering method. The web is vibrant and diverse precisely because this power is vested in each and every web page author and not solely and uniformly in the workings of your web browser. Inline XBRL may just kick-start a financial publishing revolution on the web.
At the outset of this series of posts I posed a question. I may not have established what, exactly, the "meaning of information" is, but I hope that you can now see that mark-up, in all its various forms, is the "information of meaning" (!), and that this information can be used in new and innovative ways to make the web a much more useful tool for business.