Written by Kurt Cagle Posted on September 29, 2009
Kurt Cagle is the managing editor of XML Today and a frequent commentator on XML-related issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @kurt_cagle
The specification space has become fairly busy lately as a new (well, actually, fairly old but resurgent) standard is now beginning to make waves outside of a fairly narrow domain. The US National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) has been in development since 2005, but with the new administration and a move toward increased modernization in the IT communication infrastructure of the executive branch, NIEM has definitely entered into the limelight.
NIEM isn't a single XML standard. Rather, much like XBRL, it is a framework for developing XML standards for use within the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA) that promotes a schema repository model coupled with significant re-use of XML component documents. Originally emerging as part of the Global Justice XML Data Model, NIEM is a joint effort among the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of Justice Projects (essentially an R&D agency closely aligned with the DoJ). NIEM Information Exchange Package Documents (IEPDs) are zipped collections of schemas and instance for specific data object models from emergency response reports to arrest warrants.
NIEM-based models have been quietly making their way through both the Federal government and, largely on the strength of the judicial and emergency management schemas, are now in use with all fifty states as well, with NIEM-related projects being considered in Canada. What's more, as the data model proves itself, it has garnered interest in areas well outside of law enforcement, including education, marine provisioning, inventory management, and, yes, accounting. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the executive branch's primary accounting arm, is now actively promoting NIEM-based standards throughout the various agencies and departments, a move that's especially significant given that the recently created Federal CTO slot now held by Vivek Kundra is directed out of OMB.
XBRL proponents may be dismayed by this, given the oft-stated hope that XBRL would be seen as the accounting language to be used by key Federal agencies. However, the situation isn't as clear-cut as it may seem. One of the strengths of NIEM is its core mission to reduce the amount of unnecessary duplication within ontologies given the large number of existing, well-defined industry and domain specific schemas currently in use. To that end, NIEM makes heavy use of such standards as GML, as well as most of the W3C core languages, Atom, and other specifications. Additionally, NIEM IEPDs can be written to work with payloads, which offers the possibility that XBRL could be transported within NIEM.
This is not to say that NIEM will likely end up creating a wholesale adoption of XBRL as a sub-standard. The two architectures are fairly different, with NIEM being much more structural in approach and only secondarily referential, while XBRL is primarily linear sequences of properties with heavy internal referencing. The differences are significant enough that while it is possible that the NIEM Program Management Office (PMO), the organization that ultimately vets NIEM standards, will be willing to greenlight a straight adoption of XBRL, it's not especially likely.
What is more likely to happen is that some attempt will be made to create a set of "harmonized" schemas that would share common ontologies between major XBRL schemas, the NIEM core set, and any existing accounting standards that are currently in use at the Federal level. Structurally, there would probably be some kind of bridge service that might make it possible to map from one set of standards to another, either via a set of transformations or via related tools. This is something of an ongoing process that is taking place at a number of levels, as major schema frameworks get large enough adoption to effectively collide in various domains.
Long term, given the adoption that has taken place with regulatory agencies globally, it's certainly unlikely that the US will walk away from the XBRL standard. However, it is also unlikely that the US government will sacrifice what seems to be a working, increasingly widely adopted internal standard such as NIEM when it is more likely that such a standard could be adapted to subsume many of the better elements of the XBRL standard while maintaining its own internal cohesiveness. Given this, it may behoove the XBRL community to be open to the possibilities of harmonization, on this and other fronts such as the Semantic Web harmonization currently under discussion with the W3C.
In the long run, the goal for everyone is the same: to provide a set of standards that will improve the efficiency of government messaging; make for a greater degree or reusability of content throughout the thousands of departments and agencies at the federal, state, municipal, and tribal levels; and make government accounting ultimately more transparent and accessible to the people who use and depend upon it.
For those seeking more information about NIEM, check out the NIEM website. Additionally, the NIEM PMO is scheduling a NIEM National Training Event in Baltimore on September 30 to October 2. Speakers will include Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet, and OMB CTO Vivek Kundra.