Process, technology, Uncategorized

GitHub Copilot — Is it the future?

Several months ago, I got admitted to the GitHub Copilot preview. For those of you who don’t know what Copilot is, it’s a AI-based plugin to Visual Studio Code that helps you by suggesting code for you to type. If you like, the suggestion, you hit tab, and on you go.

Join the GitHub Copilot waitlist · GitHub

It may sound like magic, and in some ways, it does seem like that. Apparently, it learns the vast base of open-source code found in the GitHub repositories. This, of course, has led to the inevitable charges that it violates fair use of that code and even that it will ultimately replace developer’s jobs much as factory automation has replaced workers. From my experience, this is more about sensationalism than anything real to worry about.

In my recent posts, I’ve covered the DIKW pyramid. It seems we’ve been stuck in the information layer for a long time, only barely touching the knowledge layer in very rudimentary ways. Yes, there are tools like Siri and Alexa which claim to be AI-based virtual assistants, but they just feel like a whole bunch or complicated programming to achieve something that is more annoying than helpful. There is Tesla Copilot for self-driving cars, but that just seems scary to me. (Full disclosure: I don’t even trust cruise control) To me, GitHub copilot is the first piece of software that truly seems to drive deep into the knowledge layer and even reach the wisdom layer. It’s truly simulating some sort of real smartness.

While the sensationalists love to make it seem that Copilot is lifting code from other people’s work and offering it up as a suggestion, I’ve seen nothing whatsoever that suggests that that is what it is doing. Instead, it truly seems to understand what I am doing. It makes suggestions that could only come from my code. It uses my naming conventions, coding standards, and even my coding style. It seems to have analyzed enough of the code base in my application to understand what local functions and libraries it could draw upon. The code it synthesizes are obviously built on templates that it’s derived by learning. But those templates aren’t just copies of other people’s work. This is how synthesis works in the CAD world I come from (actually, it’s a bit more sophisticated that the synthesis I knew in CAD many years ago) and this is a natural next step in coding technologies.

I’ve been experimenting with what Copilot can do — how far reaching its learning seems to be. It’s able to help me writing JavaScript. What it is able to suggest is remarkable. However, coding assistance is not its only trick. It even helps with writing comments — sometimes with a bit of an attitude too. Last week I was adding a TODO: comment into the loader part of LegisPro to note that it needed to be modernized. Copilot’s unsolicited suggestion for my comment was “Replace the loader with a real loader”. Thanks Copilot. As Han Solo once said, “I’m not really interested in your opinion 3PO”.

Of course, this all leads to the inevitable question. Can it be trained to write legislation? Much to my surprise, it seemingly can. How and why it knows this is completely unknown to me. It’s able to suggest basic amending language and seems to know enough that it can use fragments of quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. I find it incredible that it can even understand the context of legislation and that I did not have to tell it what that context was.

So am I sold on this new technology? Well, yes and no.

It’s not the scary source code stealing and eavesdropping application some would make it out to be. The biggest drawback to it is the same reason I don’t even trust cruise control in my car. It’s not that I don’t trust the computer. It’s that I don’t trust myself to not become lazy and complacent and come to believe the computer is right. I’ve already come across a number of situations where I’ve accepted Copilot’s suggestion without too much thought, only to needlessly wasting hours tracking down a problem that would never have existed if I had actually taken the time to write the code.

It’s an interesting technology, and I believe it’s going to be am important part of how software development evolves in the coming years. But as with all new technologies, it must be adopted with caution.

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Akoma Ntoso, Standards, technology, Uncategorized

What is Good Legislative XML?

I’m often asked what make on XML model better than another when it comes to representing laws and regulations. Just because a document is modeled in XML does not mean that it is useful in that form — the design of the schema matters in terms of what it enables or facilitates.

We have a few rules of thumb that we apply when either designing or adopting an XML schema:

  • Is it semantic?
    Reason: In order to process the information in a document, you have to understand what it is and what it means.
  • Is the presentation separated from the semantics as much as possible?
    Reason: We have moved beyond paper and nowadays it’s important to present information in form factors that just don’t suit the legacy constraints imposed by printing paper.
  • Is all the text (excluding any metadata section) in the natural reading order?
    Reason: The simplest way to present and process the text in a document is in the reading order of the text. This is particularly important is the presentation is to be added to the XML using simple CSS styling (as opposed to HTML transformation) and when the text is subject to complex amending instructions.
  • Does it, to the fullest extent possible, avoid the use of generated text?
    Reason: Similar to the last rule, it’s important for text to be displayed or amended when that text is represented. Generating text opens up a can of worms which can require sophisticated additional processing. Also, from a historical record of the text, which is essential for enacted law, having part of the text be generated by an external algorithm requires that the algorithm itself become part of the permanent record.
  • Is every provision that needs data associated with it permanently identifiable?
    Reason: With modern automation comes the need to not only manage the text of a provision but also state information. For example, is the current status of the provision pending, effective, repealed, or spent? While some of the metadata might be stored with the XML representation of the provision itself, sometimes it is better to store that metadata in a separate part of the document or in an external database. In these cases, it’s important to be able to permanently associate this external metadata with the provision — and this usually requires an immutable (permanent) identifier.
  • Is every provision that is referred to easily locatable?
    Reason: Laws are full of references (or citations). These are to provisions within the same document or to other documents or provisions within those documents. There needs to be a way to accurately and efficiently traverse and process these references. This need usually requires a locating identifier that an unambiguously identify the provision being referred to.
  • If the XML schema is for general use, is there an extensible way to add missing constructs?
    Reason: It is easy to claim to support all the legal traditions in the word, but extremely difficult to do so. While legal traditions are remarkably similar around the world, it’s impossible to predict every single construct that will arise — especially with documents data back hundreds of years. There has to be a way to implement constructs that don’t intrinsically exist within the base XML schema.
  • Is there an extensible metadata mechanism?
    Reason: A primary objective for representing a legislative or regulatory document in XML is for the processability it enables. This invariably means a need to record extensive metadata about the provisions found within the document. As the automation possibilities are endless, there needs to be a way to model and record the metadata that is generated.
  • Does it provide the facilities necessary to automate according to modern expectations?
    Reason: Some structure facilitate automation while others do not. For instance, flat structures can simplify the drafting process, but also make the automation process more difficult. It’s usually better to implement hierarchical structures and then hide the drafting complexity that creates with richer tools.

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Process, technology, Track Changes

Moving on Up to Document Synthesis

In my last blog, I discussed the DIKW pyramid and how the CAD world has advanced through the layers while the legal profession was going much slower. I mentioned that design synthesis was my boss Jerry’s favorite topic. We would spend hours at his desk in the evening while he described his vision for design synthesis — which would become the norm in just a few years.

Jerry’s definition of design (or document) synthesis was quite simple — it was the processing of the information found in one document to produce or update another document where that processing was not simple translation. In the world of electronic design, this meant writing a document that described the intended behavior of a circuit and then having a program that would create a manufacturable design using transistors, capacitors, resistors, etc. from the behavioral description. In the software world, we’ve been using this same process for years, writing software in a high-level language and then compiling that description into machine code or bytecode. For hardware design, this was a huge change — moving away from the visual representation of a schematic to a language-based representation similar to a programming language.

In the field of legal informatics, we already see a lot of processes that touch on Jerry’s definition of document synthesis. Twenty years ago, it was seeing how automatable legislation could be, but wasn’t, that convinced me that this field was ready for my skills.

So what processing do we have that meets this definition of document synthesis:

  • In-context amending is the most obvious process. Being able to process changes recorded in a marked up proposed version of a bill to extract and produce a separate amending document
  • Automated engrossing is the opposite process — taking the amending instructions found in one document to automatically update the target document.
  • Code compilation or statute consolidation is another very similar process, applying amending language found in the language of a newly enacted law to update pre-existing law.
  • Bill synthesis is a new field we’ve been exploring, allowing categorized changes to the law to be made in context and then using those changes and related metadata to produce bills shaped by the categorization metadata provided.
  • Automated production of supporting documents from legislation or regulations. This includes producing documents such as proclamations which largely reflect the information found within newly enacted laws. As sections or regulations come into effect, proclamations are automatically published enumerating those changes.

In the CAD world, the move to design synthesis required letting go of the visually rich but semantically poor schematic in favor of language-based techniques. Initially there was a lot of resistance to the idea that there would no longer be a schematic. While at University, I had worked as a draftsman and even my dad had started his career as a draftsman, so even I had a bit of a problem with that. But the benefits of having a rich semantic representation that could be processed quickly outweighed the loss of the schematic.

Now, the legislative field is wrestling with the same dilemma — separating the visual presentation of the law, whether on paper or in a PDF, from the semantic meaning found within it. Just as with CAD, it’s a necessary step. The ability to process the information automatically dramatically increases the speed, accuracy, and volume of documents that can be processed — allowing information to be produced and delivered in a timely manner. In our society where instant delivery has become the norm, this is now a requirement.

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Process, technology, Uncategorized

The Knowledge Pyramid

At the very start of my career at the Boeing Company, my boss Jerry introduced the Knowledge Pyramid the DIKW Pyramid to me one evening. I had an insatiable thirst for learning and he would spend hours introducing me to ideas he thought I could benefit from. To me, this was a profound bit of learning that would somewhat shape my career.

At the time, I was working in CAD support, introducing automation technologies to the various engineering project’s around the Boeing Aerospace division. The new CAD tools were running on expensive engineering workstations and were replacing largely homegrown minicomputer software from the 1970’s.

Jerry explained to me that the legacy software, largely batch tools, that crunched data manually input from drawings represented the data layer. The CAD drawings our tools produced actually represented a digital representation of the designs with sufficient information for both detailed analysis and manufacturing. It would take a generation of new technologies to advance from one layer to the next in the DIKW pyramid — with each generation lasting from ten to twenty years. His interest was in accelerating that pace and so we studied, as part of our R&D budget, artificial intelligence, expert systems, language-based design techniques, and design synthesis.

While data was all about crunching numbers, information was all about understanding the meaning of the data. Knowledge came from being able to use the information to synthesize (Jerry’s favorite topic) new information and to gain understanding. And finally, wisdom came from being able to work predictively based on that understanding.

When I was introduced to legal informatics in the year 2000, it was a bit of a time warp to me. While the CAD world had advanced considerably and even design synthesis was now the norm, legal informatics was stuck in neutral in the data processing world of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Mainframe tools, green screen editors, and data entry was still the norm. It was seeing this that gave me the impetus to work to advance the legal field. The journey I had just taken in the CAD world of the prior 15 years was yet to be taken in the legal field. The transition into information processing was to start with the migration to XML — replacing the crude formatting oriented markup used in the mainframe tools with modern semantic markup that provided for a much better understanding of the meaning of the text.

To say the migration to the future has gone slowly would be an understatement. There are many reasons why this has happened:

  • The legacy base of laws have to be carried along — unchanged in virtually every way. This would be like asking Boeing to advance their design tools while at the same time requiring that every other aircraft design ever produced by the company in the prior century also be supported. For law, it a necessary constraint, but also a tremendous burden.
  • The processes of law are bound by hard-to-change traditions, sometimes enshrined by the constitution of that jurisdiction. This means the tools must adapt more to the existing process than the process can adapt to the tools. Not only does this constraint require incredibly adaptable tools, it is very costly and dampers the progress that can be made.
  • The legal profession, by and large, is not technology driven and their is little vision into what can be. The pressure to keep things as they are is very strong. In the commercial world, companies simply have to advance or they won’t be competitive and will die. Jurisdictions aren’t in competition with one another and so the need to change is somewhat absent.

For advancements to come their needs to be pressure to change. Some of this does come naturally — the hardware the old tools run on won’t last forever. New legislators entering into their political careers will quickly be frustrated by the archaic paper-inspired approach to automation they find. For instance, viewing a PDF on a smartphone is not the best user experience. It is that smartphone generation that will drive the need to change.

Over the next few blogs, I’m going to explore where legal informatics is on the DIKW pyramid and what advancements on the horizon will move us up to higher levels. I’ll also take a look at new software technologies that point the way to the future — for better or worse.

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Akoma Ntoso, HTML5, LegisPro Sunrise, Standards, technology, Track Changes, Uncategorized, W3C

LegisPro Sunrise!!!

LegisPro Sunrise is almost done!. It has taken longer than we had hoped it would, but we are finally getting ready to begin limited distribution of LegisPro Sunrise, our productised implementation of our LegisPro drafting and amending tools for legislation and regulations. If you are interested in participating  in our early release program, please contact us at info@xcential.com. If you already signed up, we will be contacting you shortly.

LegisPro Sunrise is a desktop implementation of our web-based drafting and amending products. It uses Electron from GitHub, built from Google’s Chromium project, to bundle all the features we offer, both the client and server sides into a single easy-to-manage desktop application with an installer having auto-update facilities. Right now, the Windows platform is supported, but MacOS and Linux support will be added if the demand is there. You may have already used other Electron applications – Slack, Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code, WordPress, some editions of Skype, and hundreds of other applications now use this innovative new application framework.

Other versions

LegisProAIn addition to the Sunrise edition, we offer LegisPro in customised FastTrack implementations of the LegisPro product or as fully bespoke Enterprise implementations where the individual components can be mixed and matched in many different ways.

Akoma Ntoso model

AkomaNtoso

LegisPro Sunrise comes with a default Akoma Ntoso-based document model that implements the basic constructs seen in many parliaments and legislatures around the world that derive from the Westminster parliamentary traditions.

Document models implementing other parliamentary or regulatory traditions such as those found in many of the U.S. states, in Europe, and in other parts of the world can also be developed using Akoma Ntoso, USLM, or any other well-designed XML legislative schema.

Drafting & Amending

Our focus is on the drafting and amending aspects of the parliamentary process. By taking a digital-first approach to the process, we are able to offer many innovative features that improve and automate the process. Included out of the box is what we call amendments in context where amendment documents are extracted from changes recorded in a target document. Other features can be added through an extensive plugin mechanism.

Basic features

Ease-of-use

While offering sophisticated drafting capabilities for legislative and regulatory documents, LegisPro Sunrise is designed to provide the familiarity and ease-of-use of a word processor. Where it differs is in what happens under the covers. Rather than drafting using a general purpose document model and using styles and formatting to try to capture the semantics, we directly capture the semantic structure of the document in the XML. But don’t worry, as a drafter, you don’t need to know about the underlying XML – that is something for the software developers to worry about.

Templates

TemplateTemplates allow the boilerplate structure of a document to be instantiated when creating a new document. Out-of-the-box, we are providing generic templates for bills, acts, amendments, amendment lists, and a few other document types.

In addition to document templates, component templates can be specified or are synthesized when necessary to be used as parts when constructing a document.

For both document and component templates, placeholders are used to highlight area where text needs to be provided.

Upload/Download

As a result to our digital-first focus, we manage legislation as information rather than as paper. This distinction is important – the information is held in XML repositories (a form of a database) where we can query, extract, and update provisions at any level of granularity, not just at the document level. However, to allow for the migration from a paper-oriented to a digital first world, we do provide upload and download facilities.

Undo/Redo

undoRedoAs with any good document editor, unlimited undo and redo is supported – going back to the start of the editing session.

Auto-Recovery

Should something go wrong during an editing session and the editor closes, an auto-recovery feature is provided to restore your document to the state the document was at, or close to it, when the editor closed.

Contextual Insert Lists

insertLists

We provide a directed or “correct-by-construction” approach to drafting. What this means is that the edit commands are driven by an underlying document model that is defined to enforce the drafting conventions. Wherever the cursor is in the document, or whatever is selected, the editor knows what can be done and offers lists of available documents components that can either be inserted at the cursor or around the current selection.

Hierarchy

hierarchy

Document hierarchies form an important part of any legislative or regulatory document. Sometimes the hierarchy is rigid and sometimes it can be quite flexible, but either way, we can support it. The Sunrise edition supports the hierarchy Title > Part > Chapter > Article > Section > Subsection > Paragraph > Subparagraph out of the box, where any level is optional. In addition, we provide support for cross headings which act as dividers rather than hierarchy in the document. Customised versions of LegisPro can support whatever hierarchy you need — to any degree of enforcement. A configurable promote/demote mechanism allows any level to be morphed into other levels up and down the hierarchy.

Large document support

Rule-making documents can be very large, particular when we are talking about codes. LegisPro supports large documents in a number of ways. First, the architecture is designed to take advantage of the inherent scalability of modern web browsing technology. Second, we support the portion mechanism of Akoma Ntoso to allow portions of documents, at any provision level, to be edited alone. A hierarchical locking mechanism allows different portions to be edited by different people simultaneously.

Spelling Checker

checkSpelling

Checking spelling is an important part of any document editor and we have a solution – working with a third-party service we have tightly integrated with in order to give a rich and comprehensive solution. Familiar red underline markers show potential misspellings. A context menu provides alternative spellings or you can add the word to a custom dictionary.

Tagging support

Tagging

Beyond basic drafting, tagging of people, places, or things referred to in the document is something for which we have found a surprising amount of interest. Akoma Ntoso provides rich support for ontologies and we build upon this to allow numerous items to be tagged. In our FastTrack and Enterprise solutions we also offer auto-tagging technologies to go with the manual tagging capabilities of LegisPro sunrise.

Document Bar

docbar

The document bar at the top of the application provides access to a number of facilities of the editor including undo/redo, selectable breadcrumbs showing your location in the document, and various mode indicators which reflect the current editing state of the editor.

Command Ribbons and Context Menus

menuRibbons

Command ribbons and context menus are how you access the various commands available in the editor. Some of the ribbons and menus are dynamic and change to reflect the location the cursor or selection is at in the editor. These dynamic elements show the insert lists and any editable attributes. Of course, there is also an extensive set of keyboard shortcuts for many commonly used commands. It has been our goal to ensure that the majority of the commonly used documenting tasks can be accomplished from the keyboard alone.

Sidebar

SidebarA sidebar along the left side of the application provides access to the major components which make up LegisPro Sunrise. It is here that you can switch among documents, access on-board services such as the resolver and amendment generator, outboard services such as the document repository, and where the primary settings are managed.

Side Panels

sidePanel

Also on the left side are additional configurable side panels which provide additional views needed for drafting. The Resources view is where you look up documents, work with the hierarchy of the document being edited, and view provisions of other documents. The Change Control view allows the change sets defined by the advanced change control capabilities (described below) to be configured. Other panels can be added as needed.

Advanced features

In addition to the rich capabilities offered for basic  document editing, we provide a number of advanced features as well.

Document Management

Document management allows documents to be stored in an XML document repository. The advantage of storing documents in an XML repository rather than in a simple file share or traditional content management system is that it allows us to granularise the provisions within the documents and use them as true reference-able information – this is a key part of moving away from paper document-centric thinking to a modern digital first mindset. An import/export mechanism is provided to add external documents to the repository or get copies out. For LegisPro Sunrise we use the eXist-db XML database, but we can also provide customised implementation using other repositories.

Resolver

Our document management solution is built on the FRBR-based metadata defined by Akoma Ntoso and uses a configurable URI-based resolver technology to make human readable and permanent URIs into actual URLs pointing to locations within the XML repository or even to other data sources available on the Web.

Page & Line numbering

pagination

There are two ways to record where amendments are to be applied – either logically by identifying the provision or physically by page and line numbers. Most jurisdictions use one or the other, and sometimes even both. The tricky part has always been the page and line numbers. While modern word processors usually offer page and line numbers, they are dynamic and change as the document is edited. This makes this feature of limited use in an amending system. What is preferred is static page and line numbers that reflect the document at the last point it was published for use in a committee or chamber. We accomplish this approach using a back-annotation technology within the publishing service. LegisPro Sunrise also offers a page and line numbering feature that can be run without the publishing service. Page and line numbers can be display in the left or right margin in inline, depending on preference.

Amendment Generation

One of the real benefits of a digital first solution is the many tasks that can be automated – not by simply computerising the way things have always been done, but by rethinking the approach altogether. Amending is one such area. LegisPro Sunrise incorporates an onboard service to automatically generate amendment documents from changes recorded in the target document. Using tracked changes, the document hierarchy, and annotated page and line numbers, we are able to very precisely record proposed changes as amendments. Of course, the amendment generator works with the change sets to allow different amendment sets to be generated by specifying the named set of changes.

Plugin Support

plugins

LegisPro Sunrise is not the first incarnation of our LegisPro offering. We’ve been using the underlying technologies and precursors to those technologies for years with many different customers. One thing we have learned is that there is a vast variation in needs from one customer to another. In fact, even individual customers sometime require very different variations of the same basic system to automate different tasks within their organisation. To that end, we’ve developed a powerful plug-in approach which allows capabilities to be added as necessary without burdening the core editor with a huge range of features with limited applicability. The plugin architecture allows onboard and outboard services to be added, individual commands, menus, menu items, side panels, mode indicators, JavaScript libraries, and text string libraries to be added. In the long term, we’re planning to foster a plugin development community.

Proprietary or Open Source?

There are two questions that always come up relating to our position on standards and open source software:

  1. Is it based on standards? Yes, absolutely – almost to a fault. We adhere to standards whenever and however we can. The model built into LegisPro Sunrise is based on the Akoma Ntoso standard that has been developed over the past few years by the OASIS LegalDocML technical committee. I have been a continual part of that effort since the very beginning. But beyond that, we always choose standards-based technologies for inclusion in our technology stack. This includes XML, XSLT, XQuery, CSS, HTML5, ECMAScript 2015, among others.
  2. Is it open source?
    • If you mean, is it free, then the answer is only yes for evaluation, educational, and non-production uses. That’s what the Sunrise edition is all about. However, we must fund the operation of our company somehow and as we don’t sell advertising or customer profiles to anyone, we do charge for production use of our software. Please contact us at info@xcential.com or visit our website at xcential.com for further information on the products and services we offer.
    • If you mean, is the source code available, then the answer is also yes – but only to paying customers under a maintenance contract. We provide unfettered access to our GitHub repository to all our customers.
    • Finally, if you’re asking about the software we built upon, the answer is again yes, with a few exceptions where we chose a best-of-breed commercial alternative over any open source option we had. The core LegisPro Sunrise application is entirely built upon open source technologies – it is only in external services where we sometimes rely up commercial third-party applications.

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What does it cost?

As I already alluded to, we are making LegisPro Sunrise available to potential customers and partners, academic institutions, and other select individuals or organisations for free – so long as it’s not used for production use — including drafting, amending, or compiling legislation, regulations, or other forms of rule-making. If you would like a production system, either a FastTrack or Enterprise edition, please contact us at info@xcential.com.

Coming Soon

Book

I will soon also be providing a pocket handbook on Akoma Ntoso. As a member of the OASIS LegalDocML Technical Committee (TC) that has standardised Akoma Ntoso, it has been important to get the handbook reviewed for accuracy by the other TC members. We are almost done with that process. Once the final edits are made, I will provide information on how you can obtain your own copy.

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Akoma Ntoso, HTML5, LegisPro Sunrise, LEX Summer School, Standards, technology, Track Changes

The Sun is Rising on Akoma Ntoso — and LegisPro too!

Two great news piece of news this week! First, the documentation for Akoma Ntoso has now been officially released by OASIS. Second, we’re announcing the latest version of  our LegisPro drafting platform for Akoma Ntoso, codenamed “Sunrise”.

After several years of hard work, we’ve made a giant step towards our goal of setting an international XML standard for legal documents. You can find the documents at the OASIS LegalDocML website. A special thanks to Monica Palmirani and Fabio Vitali at the University of Bologna for their leadership in this endeavour.

legispro250Later this week, Xcential will be announcing and showing the latest version of “Sunrise” version of LegisPro, at both NALIT in Annapolis, Maryland and at the LEX Summer School in Ravenna, Italy. This new version represents a long-planned change to Xcential’s business model. While we have a thriving enterprise business, we’re now focusing on also providing more affordable solutions for smaller governments.

Part of our plan is to foster an open community of providers around the Akoma Ntoso standard for legislative XML. With Akoma Ntoso now in place as a standard, we’re looking for ways to provide open interfaces such that cooperative tools and technologies can be developed. One of my goals at this years summer school in Ravenna is to begin outlining the open APIs that will enable this vision.

LegisPro

The new edition of LegisPro will be all about providing the very best options:

  1.  It will provide a word processing like drafting capability your drafters demand — along with the real capabilities you need:
    • We’re not talking about merely providing a way to style a word processing document to look like legislation.
    • We’re talking about providing easy ways to define the constructs you need for your legislative traditions, such as–
      • a configurable hierarchy,
      • configurable tagging of important information,
      • configurable numbering rules,
      • configurable metadata,
      • oh, and configurable styles too.
    • We’re talking about truly understanding your amending traditions and providing the mechanisms to support them, such as–
      • configurable track changes, because we understand that a word processor’s track changes are not enough,
      • as-published page and line markers, because we understand your real need for page and line numbers and that a word processor’s page and line numbering is not that,
      • robust typography, because we know there’s a quite a difference between the casual correspondence a word processor is geared for and the precision demanded in documents that represent laws and regulations.
  2. It will be as capable as we can make it — for real-world use rather than just a good demo:
    • We’re not talking about trying to sell you a cobbled together suite of tools we built for other customers.
    • We’re talking about working with specialists in all the sub-fields of legal informatics to provide best-of-breed options that work with our tools.
    • We’re talking about making as many options available to you as we know there is no one-size-fits-all answer in this field.
    • We’re talking about an extensible architecture that will support on-board plug-ins as well as server-side web-services.
    • We’re talking about providing a platform of choices rather than a box of pieces.
  3. It will be as affordable as we can possibly make it:
    • We’re talking about developing technologies that have been designed to be easily configured to meet a wide variety of needs.
    • We’re talking about using a carefully chosen set of technologies to minimize both your upfront cost and downstream support challenges.
    • We’re talking about providing a range of purchasing options to meet your budgetary constraints as best we can.
    • We’re talking about finding a business model that allows us to remain profitable — and spreads the costs of developing the complex technologies required by this field as widely and fairly as possible.
  4. It is as future-proof as we can possibly make it:
    • We’re not talking about trying to sell you on a proprietary office suite.
    • We’re talking about using a carefully curated set of technologies that have been selected as they represent the future of application development — not the past — including:
      • GitHub’s Electron which allows us to provide both a desktop and a web-based option, (This is the same technology used by Slack, WordPress, Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code, and hundreds of other modern applications.)
      • Node.js which allows us to unify client-side and server-side application development with “isomorphic JavaScript,”
      • JavaScript 6 (ECMAScript 2015) which allows us to provide a truly modern, unified, and object-oriented programming environment,
      • Angular and other application frameworks that allow us to focus on the pieces and not how they will work together,
      • CSS3 and LESS that allows us to provide state-of-the-art styling technologies for the presentation of XML documents,
      • the entire XML technology stack that is critical for enabling an information-centric rather than document-centric system as is appropriate for the 21st century,
      • and, of course, using the Akoma Ntoso schema for legislative XML to provide the best model for sharing data, information, tools, and other technologies. It’s truly a platform to build an industry on.
  5. It is as open as we can possibly make it:
    • We’re not talking about merely using an API published by a vendor attempting to create a perception of openness by publishing an API with “open” in the name.
    • We’re talking about building on a full suite of open source tools and technologies coming from vendors such as Google, GitHub, and even Microsoft.
    • We’re talking about using non-proprietary protocols such as HTTP and WebDAV.
    • We’re talking about providing an open API to our tools that will also work with tools of other vendors that support Akoma Ntoso.
    • And, while we must continue to be a profitable product vendor, we will still provide the option of open access to our GitHub repositories to our customers and partners. (We’ll even accept pull requests)

Our goal is to be the very best vendor in the legislative and regulatory space, providing modern software that helps make government more efficient, more transparent and more responsive. We want to provide you with options that are affordable, capable, and planned for the future. We want to do whatever we can to allay your fears of vendor lock-in by supporting open standards, open APIs, and open technologies. We want to foster an Akoma Ntoso-based industry of cooperative tools and technologies as we know that doing so will be in the best interests of everyone — customers, product vendors, service providers, and the people who support them. As someone once told me many years ago, if you focus on making the pie as large as you can, the crumbs left on the knife will be plenty enough for you.

Either come by our table at NALIT in Annapolis or join us for the Akoma Ntoso Developer’s Conference in Ravenna at the conclusion of the LEX Summer School to learn more. If neither of these options will work for you, you can always learn more at Xcential.com or by sending email to info@xcential.com.

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LEX Summer School, Process, technology, Uncategorized

Escaping a Technology Eddy

Do you need to escape a technology eddy? In fluid dynamics, an eddy is the swirling of a fluid that causes a reverse current against a downstream flow. It often forms behind a major obstacle. The swirling motion of an eddy creates resistance to forward motion by creating a backward force. Eddies are also seen in air and electromagnetic systems.

I see a similar phenomena in my work that I’m going to coin a technology eddy. A technology eddy forms in organisations that are risk adverse, have restricted budgets, or simply are more focused on software maintenance of a major system rather than on software development. Large enterprises, in particular, often find their IT organisations trapped in a technology eddy. Rather than going with the flow of technological change, the organisation drifts into a comfortable period where change is more restricted to the older technologies they are most familiar with.

TechnologyEddy

As time goes by, an organisation trapped in a technology eddy adds to the problem by building more and more systems within the eddy — making it ever more difficult to escape the eddy when the need arises.

I sometimes buy my clothing at Macy’s. It’s no secret that Macy’s, like Sears, is currently struggling against the onslaught of technological change. Recently, when paying for an item, I noticed that their point-of-sale systems still run on Windows 7 (or was that Windows Vista). Last week, on the way to the airport, I realised I had forgotten to pack a tie. So, I stopped in to Macy’s only to find that they had just experienced a 10 minute power outage. Their ancient system, what looked to be an old Visual Basic Active Directory app, was struggling to reboot. I ended up going to another store — for all the other stores in the mall were up and running quite quickly. The mall’s 10 minute power outage cost Macy’s an hour’s worth of sales because of old technology. The technology eddy Macy’s is trapped in is not only costing them sales in the short term, it’s killing them in the grand scheme of things. But I digress…

I come across organisations trapped in technology eddies all the time. IT organisations in government are particularly susceptible to this phenomena. In fact, even Xcential got trapped in a technology eddy. With a small handful of customers and a focus on maintenance over development for a few years, we had become too comfortable with the technologies that we knew and the way in which we built software.

It was shocking to me when I came to realise just how out-of-date we had become. Not only were we unaware of the latest technologies, we were unaware of modern concepts in software development, modern tools, and even modern programming styles. We had become complacent, assuming that technology from the dawn of the Millennium was still relevant.

I hear a lot of excuses for staying in a technology eddy. “It works”, “all our systems are built on this technology”, “it’s what we know how to build”, “newer technologies are too risky”, and so on. But there is a downside. All technologies rise up, have a surprisingly brief heyday, and then slowly fade away. Choosing to continue within a technology eddy using increasingly dated technology ensures that sooner or later, an operating system change or a hardware failure of an irreplaceable part will create an urgent crisis to replace a not-all-that-old system with something more modern. At that point, escaping the eddy will be of paramount importance and you’ll have to paddle at double speed just to catch up. This struggle becomes the time when the price for earlier risk mitigation will be paid — for now the risks will compound.

So how do you avoid the traps of a technology eddy? For me, the need to escape our eddy became most apparent as we got exposed to people, technologies, and ideas that were beyond the comfortable zone in which our company existed. Hearing new ideas from developers beyond our sphere of influence and being exposed to requirements from new customers made us quickly realize that we had become quite old-fashioned in our ways. To stay relevant you must get out and learn — constantly. Go to events that challenge your thinking rather than reinforce it.

Today we are once more a state-of-the-art company. We’ve adopted modern development techniques, upgraded our tools, upgraded our technologies, and upgraded our coding skills. These changes allow us to compete worldwide and build software for multiple customers in a fully distributed way that spans companies, continents, and time zones.

I hope we’ll remember this lesson and focus more on continuous improvement rather than having to endure a crash course of change every few years.

 

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Standards, technology, Uncategorized, W3C

The many lives of JavaScript

I recently worked out that I’ve learned, on average, a new programming language every two to three years. These many languages have been part of my toolbox for somewhere between four to six years before falling away to make room for new technologies. However, there is one programming language that has been a major part of my programming repertoire for almost 22 years now – and that is JavaScript.

My JavaScript programming skills have recently undergone a major renaissance as I’ve adopted JavaScript 6 (aka ECMAScript 2015), for most of my coding. The way I write code today is nothing like the code I wrote just one year ago – and I’ve gone back and largely modernised all active code to be consistent. Today’s programming style uses modern frameworks and is far more object oriented and asynchronous. There are many new features which have totally updated how I write code. Proper (while still limited) classes with mixins have replaced the ugly prototype mechanism I used to use for object orientation. Let and const declarations have caught latent bugs that were hidden in my code. Arrow functions (aka. lambda expressions) and promises have streamlined code that once was quite clunky. The list goes on…

Even my tools have changed. Microsoft’s surprisingly excellent Visual Studio Code has replaced the hodgepodge of tools I once used. We’re in the process of integrating Jasmine and Karma to the process. JavaScript Semistandard Style (no, I still like semicolons) has ensured a very clean code base – as well as catching a multitude of errors and sins.

LifeOfJavaScript

All this change got me thinking about the four lives of JavaScript that I have worked through. Way back when, JavaScript had an awkward birth at the hands of Netscape as the lesser stepchild of the new Java programming language from Sun that was taking away all the attention. JavaScript was just a way to glue Java applets together in the browser. The problem is, Java applets really sucked.

Microsoft quickly saw the value of JavaScript though, and launched their own effort to steal Netscape’s baby. And so, JavaScript was stolen, renamed JScript and made to be the adopted sibling of Microsoft’s other scripting language, VBScript. One good bit progress that Microsoft made was to sponsor the standardisation of the language, although the resulting name of ECMAScript was another in a long string of unfortunate names the language has had to endure.

As JScript, JavaScript was to become an integral part of Microsoft’s entire ActiveX strategy. A lot of really cool technologies (yes, really) came of this allowing JScript to go beyond the browser. As an application extension language, it found its way into the XMetaL XML editor as the customisation technology. We used it and many of the ActiveX technologies to great effect when we implemented California’s bill drafting system. However, it didn’t just end there. We were able to use it on the server-side through Classic ASP and as a shell scripting language through the Windows Script Host. For a Microsoft-centric programmer, this era of JavaScript was a glorious one.

However, ActiveX was seriously flawed. It was entirely proprietary and riddled with problems. Microsoft abandoned it almost as quickly as they had adopted it – moving on to .Net where JScript.net was a non-starter. As Microsoft’s interest in ActiveX and even Internet Explorer waned in the early 2000s, life as a JavaScript programmer became ever gloomier. While the capabilities were awesome, there was obviously no future.

At this point, we made the somewhat painful decision to move away from Microsoft’s outmoded view of the Internet and go back to the basics. While it meant giving up a lot of capability, in the end it was an excellent decision for it pointed to the future. One tiny aspect of Microsoft’s ActiveX vision, the XMLHttpRequest object, escaped from Microsoft and gave rise to a whole different way of programming – Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX). This development and the emergence of new browsers, first Firefox and then Google’s Chrome with its V8 JavaScript engine, breathed new life into JavaScript.

Freed from Microsoft’s grip, JavaScript has flourished. The past decade has seen a plethora of new technologies. Isomorphic JavaScript (or Universal JavaScript) blurs the distinction between coding for the server and the client. In fact, technologies like Electron turn web-based application development back to the desktop where you can get the best of both worlds.

When I look back on the code I wrote during the ActiveX era (yes, we still support it), it looks prehistoric. Modern JavaScript is so much more capable and flexible than the clunky rendition we had back when COM-based ActiveX was supposed to change the world. As I mentioned earlier, how I program now is completely different – asynchronous programming is a difficult but very worthwhile skill to acquire.

Looking to the future, I see three paths. On one side is a mature but polarising platform that is dominated by Oracle. Oracle’s dominance ensures stability but also deters innovation. Looking to the other side, one finds another mature but polarising platform that is dominated by Microsoft. Here too, Microsoft’s dominance ensures stability but also deters innovation. The result is that it seems that both paths have now had their heyday. You don’t hear very much aspirational news from either technology path anymore — what it must have felt like programming a mainframe in COBOL at the height of the C/C++ era.

The third path seems to be the path of the future – staking out a middle ground that neither technology giant can stomp on. Sure, Google is a technology giant that plays a strong role, but they’re still reasonably well regarded by the development community at large (for now). It is this middle ground that has been the most fertile for new technologies – and JavaScript is right in the thick of it. There are so many new technologies it’s hard to keep track of them all — AngularJS, Node.js, React, Express.js, to name but a few. While this third path can play well with both of the other two, for me it is the path that truly points to the future.

This brings us to the fourth life for JavaScript – building on the momentum of the past decade to mount a credible challenge for enterprise apps. While I initially dismissed many of the new features of the language as mere syntactic sugar, my experience with it has shown it to be more. I now write much better code. I believe we’re on the verge of an explosion in JavaScript-enabled applications that will blur the distinction between the platforms, between the desktop and the browser, and between the server and the client. This is truly an exciting time, once more, to be developing in JavaScript.

It goes without saying, but stay tuned for more…

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