10 Steps to Get Started With An Interoperable Framework

Putting an interoperable framework in place will reduce keying time and errors, improve reporting and get your district closer to a zero-day startup.

Stop Rekeying Your Data!
Achieving a seamless exchange of data between various applications is certainly not easy. However, good planning and careful software selection will reduce keying time and improve reporting.

Edward Parker

WHEN PRESIDENT BUSH signed “No Child Left Behind” into federal law, the need for K-12 administrators to retrieve accurate, real-time data became paramount — almost overnight. Yet the application-centric model of data collection makes meeting the necessary reporting requirements time-consuming and costly. My district’s solution: interoperability.

In an environment of application interoperability, teachers and administration can get access to numerous types of data, which gives them the opportunity to better evaluate and track student achievement. It also helps move districts toward a ‘zero-day startup’ where every necessary piece of data is processed when students arrive on campus, rather than days or weeks later.

While some districts have achieved the goal of swapping data between disparate systems, others are still investigating. What’s the hold-up? There are many TLAs (three letter acronyms), costs and work that prevent school districts from diving into interoperability. However, with persistence and patience, interoperability is possible.

INTEROPERABILITY DEFINED

Interoperability allows common data elements to flow between various applications based on rules that govern the flow of data and that guarantee data integrity.

In the past, proprietary software applications were viewed as individual data stores, or silos. Standards, such as the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) and eXtensible Markup Language (XML), make exchanging data less complex.

Proponents of SIF hoped the protocol would make it easier to identify applications that contained the proper framework (data fields of student information) for K-12 schools. The XML-based standard defines how data needs to be shared between applications, but the cost associated with compliance has stymied getting more SIF-enabled applications into the market.

Part of the problem is poorly designed applications, says Mike Veckenstedt, chief technology officer and deputy CIO for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. In the past, too much emphasis went to building applications “based on the functionality for the end user and not on the technical requirements toward system integration,” he says. “Consideration must be given to the back-end process.”

SIF-ENABLING APPLICATIONS

So how does one get started with interoperability? Here are ten suggestions to begin the process:

1. Do your homework. Interoperability and identity management projects require extensive planning and technical expertise. The traditional K-12 funding model does not account for the increased sophistication in student data systems or the complexity of network systems. While interoperability and identity management require the participation of many departments, the primary responsibility for implementation will reside with an over-burdened IT department. If you do not have the technical staff to manage this process, select a consultant who has a proven track record. Look at districts that have worked on this and find out who they recommend.

2. While the SIF stamp of approval is an excellent indicator, it is not the final authority. Just because an application has not achieved the SIF stamp does not indicate its inability to participate within the scope of an interoperability project. Many applications, including some legacy ones, may have an avenue to import and export data in an automated fashion.

3. Take an inventory of your existing applications.

4. Contact your software vendors and find out what they are doing about interoperability. Ask if they are SIF-compliant or if they have other avenues to assist in the open exchange of data. Let them know this functionality is important. I have been told by vendors that until enough of their clients express interest in this type of functionality, they will continue to place a low priority on the development of SIF and other interoperability functionality as a core component of their software. Find out if they are working with existing customers who have achieved this type of functionality or are involved in the process. You may need to change software vendors if the one you are currently using is unwilling to allow the open exchange of data.

5. Involve the departments that will be affected. A good understanding of the data and how it is used is vital. This technology is powerful, and the flow of data may happen very quickly. That expedited flow is wonderful — if the data is correct.

6. Determine the data within your applications that administrators need to access for reporting purposes. Create a map showing the flow of data between those applications and decide if an application should be allowed to dictate changes in data stored in other applications. For example, if someone changes the name of a student in the library circulation software, does that name need to automatically change in the student information system (SIS)?

7. Select the underlying engine that makes this interoperability machine run. Contact districts that have achieved interoperability and find out what zone integration server they use. The consultant chosen to assist may also dictate this step.

8. Plan for and address the additional network overhead that interoperability will require. Some of the increased overhead can be absorbed if all your applications are housed at the district level. But if one of the applications is housed offsite, additional overhead may be difficult to avoid. The bandwidth needed to accommodate the increased flow of data and connectivity to a remote application exceeds what is usually available. While many individual schools have connectivity to the Internet, high-speed interconnectivity within the district may not have been achieved.

9. Start small. Select a small subset of data elements to begin the process, and select only two or three applications to exchange the selected data elements. Once you have successfully integrated those data elements, add additional subsets of data and increase the overall number of participation applications.

10. Test, test, and test again. Make sure you have it configured correctly before you turn on the switch.

With interoperability, student data is entered into the SIS and, based on predefined rules, the student data is automatically entered into other applications with little, if any, human intervention. This enables students, faculty and staff to securely access needed applications from day one. The 2006-2007 school year will be the first time this has been considered achievable in our district. Without interoperability, it would not be possible.

Another major benefit is the reporting capabilities that result from interoperability. As a small district, we can’t afford an expensive data warehousing solution. That made it difficult to consolidate and prepare reports needed to make data-driven decisions. We found that by utilizing the data now being exchanged between the applications, we could develop a small-scale data reporting solution. By creating our own database, using software such as Microsoft Access, and populating that database with the information flowing as a result of interoperability, inexpensive reporting tools such as Crystal Reports can produce reports in a timely fashion.

Edward Parker is technology director at Clinton City Schools in Clinton, N.C.

ID MANAGEMENT SECURITY

A quality identity management solution should provide a security auditing mechanism to track:

• Who has access to certain data

• When data may have been accessed

• Any changes to data, user accounts and security clearances.

Oct 31 2006

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