Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Toward collaborative information sharing 

I gave testimony today in New York on their proposed legislation on open government and open data.  This whole world of Web 3.0 collaborative information and Gov 2.0 solutions is supposed to be self-describing as per the W3C and their “open data” RDF syntax.

However it is very unclear how this utopia is attained and at what costs.

The city of course is looking at their costs of getting data and then supporting that with archives and updates and publication feeds.  Having a harmonized approach can potentially significantly reduce deployment and sustainment costs along with potential software development collaboration and cost savings for cities themselves.  Having a common view also of course helps solution providers market to cities nationally not just locally.  Perhaps the biggest challenge is the unspoken one of complexity.  The more one steps into data sharing one sees the opportunity for people to interpose complexity.  Keeping things simple, yet consistent and transparent requires constant vigilance and oversight to ensure that solution providers are not injecting their own self-serving complexity.  After all complexity costs money to build and support, is a barrier to competitors, and hence vendors are naturally drawn to inject complexity.

This could be the opportunity for standards based development of “CityHallXML” providing the most common information components of financial, infrastructure and performance data along with census and demographic data.

Today also I published a paper on creating dictionaries of information canonical XML components, aligned to the NIEM.gov approach and CEFACT core components model.

This juxtaposes with the W3C world view of self-describing data instances and RDF.  You have the approach of either the embedded RDF semantics, with all that overhead on each and every data item (aka “Open Data”), or you have this OASIS-based approach of semantics referenced in domain dictionary components and information structure templates that allow comparatively small concise data instances where the XML tags provide the content referencing between content and semantics about the content.

Equally important is that the canonical components are built using naming and design rules (NDR) that drive consistency of approach and convergence on terms and meaning.

This all contrasts with today’s approach of publishing mega-structure as a Schema that contains all possible exchange components for every facet of a business process.  This then forces developers to unravel the puzzle of what each part of the business process needs from that mega-structure, often sending redundant or empty data elements, instead of dynamic content assembly templates using selected parts from a dictionary of canonical components.

Now, lets assume everyone drinks this OASIS "Cool-Aid" - they create domain dictionaries of canonical components, and then use shared open source tooling to create their information structures dynamically and the tooling takes care of all the plumbing, templates, extraction and creation of XML instances from backend data stores, and submission to XML online repositories for archiving and exposure through search and retrieval services.

Vendors and government collaborate to develop and deploy open source based portals that allow further sharing and open access to data. Additional niche services using collaborative social platform tools integrate into these and deliver a wealth of community facing solutions to citizens.

Life is good. 

This means technically no one strictly needs to publish formal exchange structure schema any more, exchanges are dynamically built to purpose by the communities.  We already saw this need happen recently during the Haiti relief effort, when OASIS Emergency EDXL had to be extended on the fly to support on the ground situations with hospitals and the services they can provide.  

So what is left to achieve in this uber Web 3.0 world and data sharing dominated by XML based services driven by today’s technology underpinnings of SOAP, REST, RSS and http, IETF and W3C speak with RDF?

We could envision that there would be the need for a triumvirate to manage and steward the go forward where federal, state and local government stakeholders need independent oversight and technology guidance.  This is similar to what NIEM.gov is currently doing federally and perhaps as New York and other states are seeking to do today. 

Of course many vendors are out there pitching their wares and setting up stall, figuring if they can own a states data then they essentially have a license to print money from those needing access to data or pushing targeted advertizing content at them along with the data they seek.  In New York was heard testimony that “It’s only a small monthly fee or one time subscription for a week’s access to what you need and we have analysts to help you”.  Notice also that Microsoft has created OData to publish RSS driven feeds that link also into SharePoint, and then Google has its own open data APIs available and associated search tools.

So for the triumvirate this could be positioning in terms of long term objectives keeping data sharing truly open without the dominance of particular solution providers at the expense of smaller community based services, or even the community itself.  Information empowers democracy but can also be used to track and restrict freedoms of those who would seek that truth and equality. Asking suspicious questions can incur penalties or allow law enforcement to track potential suspects.

Even in the traditional areas of formal legislated transactional information exchanges for secure B2B the gap there will continue to blur as the use case for open data encroaches on transactional data and network speeds continue to erode what is thought of as optimized high volume exchanges with small transactions.

The blurring is accelerated by building contextual business process driven data exchanges from components drawn from canonical dictionary collections with embedded links to open data sources; e.g.  I send the city a price quote for items and embed reference links to my public company profile, my digital certificate public key registered with the city, and the links and references to item descriptions published by the city for the RFP.  The city itself then on contract award can simply publish that same information as was submitted as the bid.

This ushers in a very collaborative new world.

A further need then is Web 3.0 enabled portals and services that can publish canonical dictionaries of component definitions to help drive standardization out there in the domain user communities.  This then provides authoritative sources for good high quality components for use in building collaborative spaces and information exchanges.

Then just maybe the challenge lies beyond data and into rule sharing and systems?

If we have solved information sharing then the next piece of the puzzle is open sharing of the under laying rules and trap doors that can snag the unwary?  Clearly rule sharing systems are the next step up from just data sharing because they have to be built on top of consistent information representations.

Back in the day in 1998 when we started the XML/edi work we talked about "The Fusion of Five" - XML, EDI, repositories, templates and agents.

Each of these represents:


Checking off the first 4 here as becoming closed chapters in the brave new Web 3.0 world, so is the agent piece the next great frontier?  We are already seeing related work such as the OASIS SET TC that is providing a framework for information mapping automation.

Clearly the world is redefining what is perceived as possible and what requires better solutions and standard representations.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The food industry and you! Are you addicted yet? 

In their March 2010 the Scripps Research Study shows compulsive eating shares same addictive biochemical mechanism with cocaine, heroin abuse (see article).  Remember all those tobacco industry executives stating under oath that nicotine is not addictive?

I've suspected this for years but now we're seeing hard evidence and the culprits of course are high fat content and high sugar content, just like you find in most fast food joints and low priced foods including sodas, surprise, surprise.

The study reported that a diet of high-fat, high-sugar food led a group of rats to pursue obesity with passion. Offering the rats healthful food in place of the sweet and fatty stuff led only to hunger strikes.

The scientists studied the fat rats’ brains. They looked like a cocaine abuser’s: the animals were fiends, addicted to the core.

The solution?  Well this is America - so Scripps has developed a pill for people to pop!  This is based on ghrelin that the body produces naturally. Their quarterly Endeavor newsletter offers more insights.

Endeavor also talks to "evolution gone wrong" - “Sugar tastes good because our brains are tuned to detect sugar; fat tastes good because our brains are tuned to detect fat. Things that contain lots of sugar and fat are energy dense. Under conditions like those in which humans evolved, when food was scarce, the ability to identify these foods as preferred fuels, seek them out and eat them promoted survival. Unfortunately, in our current environment of plenty, the excess of such foods is making us sick. It’s evolution gone wrong.”

Statistically of Americans 20 years or older, more than two out of every three men and about 62 percent of women are overweight or obese. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2006, 295, 1549-1555).  For low income minorities it is even higher because they are more prone to buy low priced foods that are high in fats and sugars.  The healthcare costs and lost productivity costs and social costs of this are staggering.   Are we going to start charging the fast food industry for this, as we are doing for the tobacco industry?

Time to introduce legislation that limits the fat and sugar content of foods, place health warning labels on super high fat items, limit their portion sizes, and add a healthcare surcharge to those items to limit their purchase.  How many years do you think that is going to take;  five, ten, or fifteen?  I'd bet that we are headed there.

At least some folks in the food industry are starting to see their responsibility to offer good food options that are simple to prepare and satisfying and healthy:

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Royal Navy, IRS and a new fair tax? 

Over 200 years ago the English Parliament enacted a personal income tax to solve the chronic financial management of the Royal Navy.  Back then it was a classic tithe - 1/10th of incomes and it transformed the Royal Navy into a professional fighting force that built the British Empire.  Citizens were contributing directly to their nations survival initially against Dutch, French and Spanish threats and even Moorish pirate incursions and then of course to a huge successful trade system built on naval domination.  That also led to the worlds largest accounting bureaucracy that supported the Navy and its supply chain using paper based ledgers and ships logs recording.

In 1913 the US Congress went down the same path, with WW1 providing the impetus for a constitutional amendment - http://www.taxanalysts.com/museum/1901-1932.htm

Of course this is all a slippery slope.  Once established there is no reverting to past practice.  As Winston Churchill discovered when he brought in the road tax for cars to pay for roads.  In the UK currently 40 billion is raised in road tax of which about 4 billion is spent on roads.  But of course politicians find it easy to justify a road tax and people have to pay it.

And that is exactly the problem the US now faces.  The whole income tax system is no longer "for the people, by the people", but is instead "against the people, by the government".  This is made even more obvious by the stark reality of recession, when the government is ever more desperate for funds and hence taxes the successful wherever it can.  And thus inhibiting the very economic recovery that is desperately sought.  Worse those people who are trying to work their way out and pay down their debts are the very ones hit hardest by back taxes, penalties and interest when their year end incomes actually incur more taxes than they anticipated.  Not to mention that working really hard exposes you to bureaucratic abuse by the IRS because it leaves you preciously little free time to deal with their demands, methods and procedures.  Including the notorious "adjustments" to prior year returns that are almost impossible and impractical to contest, with inevitable penalties and interest tacked on. Also amazingly these adjustments work on the principle of guilty until proven innocent! Of course if sickness, unemployment or family strife intervene then this simply makes you even more vulnerable.

The IRS has become so adept at harassing citizens and false stepping them with an arcane and largely hidden bureaucratic infrastructure process distributed across the US.  Notice that federal tax workers in lower income areas can be pitted against citizens working in urban areas thousands of miles away.  Creating a divided society and exploiting those who are not in a position to question the IRS methods and for whom any government job is welcome (http://www.financialsense.com/editorials/cliffkule/2010/0520.html).   Worse still for job creation, actually the current tax situation positively rewards companies for moving jobs overseas and away from the US.

How did a democracy founded on the very principles of freedom from excessive government end up with the very opposite in the current IRS?  Two successive World Wars and then the Cold War clearly played a part.  However politicians and the political system also has been a major contributor, using the tax system to reward the more powerful. Tax avoidance for businesses is clearly a major part of being a large enterprise and hence worth significant political contributions. And this has led to Congress turning a blind eye to the excesses of the IRS.  How can the IRS justify charging penalties and interest on bureaucratic revisionism for citizens, when the government allows financial institutions loans at trifling interest rates, and similarly provides low cost loans to enterprises in research grants and other perks?

Particularly shocking in the "against the people, by the government" equation is now the obvious fact that the most beneficial scenario for the government is when middle aged citizens actually just die!  This maximizes the benefits and revenues to the government, and provides cost avoidance on older age health benefits and retirement payments.  In fact the more collateral stress and strife the IRS causes citizens the better because that puts them at higher risk for depression, suicide, stroke, cancer and alcoholism, in short all the high risk killers.  Do not expect the IRS to keep statistics of that nature of course!

So what can be done to reverse the shame that the IRS has made itself?  Fortunately 21st century technology provides the answer, allowing us to replace an 18th century imperial tax system with a system that rewards everything that being American symbolizes instead. And fittingly July 4th, 2010 is the date chosen for national awareness of this new system.  It is called the Fair Tax initiative - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FairTax and the http://www.fairtax.org web site provides resources and informative presentations.

Essentially modern America is built on consumption of goods and services.  This came about particularly following WW2 (see The Story of Stuff - http://www.storyofstuff.com/) and the advent of modern consumer goods, gadgets and devices.  So a tax system that is built on consumers makes complete sense, not to mention that this drives incentives for the government to keep you alive as a healthy, productive and happy consumer.  Government for the people, by the people.

One thing that supporters have failed to highlight up until now is how modern computer accounting systems and particularly credit cards and other emerging electronic payments systems allow us to completely automate tax collection.  This is illustrated by the UPromise initiative (http://www.upromise.com) that rewards users with college funds for each purchase made of qualified goods and services.  You signup to push applicable transactions to their system from all the major credit card vendors. What this tells us is that the mechanisms to collect a Fair Tax already exist and work. Now of course this is NOT a pull system!  The last thing we need is a replacement IRS with ability to pull every citizens financial accounts, that is way too much government intrusion in peoples lives.  However for enterprises above a determined threshold of sales volumes it does mean that qualified transactions can be accounted, audited and accredited by third party services and hence fair payments made to the government.  As the Fairtax folks point out, this is also way cheaper than the current tax accounting companies are burdened with.  Hence cheaper tax systems mean more competitive American businesses globally.

Another good thing for citizens is that they get a significant chunk of their lives back.  Since the current tax system expects every citizen to be an accountant, there is the small matter of days lost to current tax paperwork.  Says this takes 2 days annually of your time, and you do this from age 18 to say 88 when you die.  That is 70 x 2 = 140 days of your life = 4.5 months.  Not to mention that the IRS has receiving funding during the Bush administration to allow it the staffing resources to audit each citizen once during their life time.

Good luck America - as the Fairtax initiative explains - you deserve a better tax system, and now is an excellent time to adopt it and help move America forward as a society.  And that is key, it is not so much about taxation itself as about creating a society that can reward citizens who contribute to everyones well being instead of punishing them.

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