ERCIM News No.41 - April 2000 [contents]

Providing the Context for Business Decisions

by Brian Matthews

Information is the major asset of business today. However, if there is insufficient knowledge about the business context in which information is supplied, then the user may not be in a position to judge its relevance and as a consequence, may not be able to make correct business decisions. The problem is to provide the correct information to the correct user at the correct time.

Information Systems Engineering at CLRC is working with a major international communications company to explore ways to enhance the dissemination of the corporate knowledge assets. As the Web has become a universal medium for both external and internal communication, it is natural to use it for this project. The emerging Web technologies, especially the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and the Resource Description Framework (RDF) offer a powerful means for managing and distributing data as well as the context in which it is presented.

The company maintains a single data model for corporate information. This forms the basis for generating particular data models to be used for particular situations, such as a product management system, marketing system, or customer handling system. By conforming to a common basis, the exchange of information between these systems becomes easier, allowing rapid and consistent information to be transmitted. However, maintaining and using this model is a real problem. If the model is hard to understand and explore, then it is hard to persuade systems developers to use it.

The project is using an XML representation of this UML model to transmit it via the corporate Intranet. This gives the opportunity to present it to the user within widely available XML enabled browsers, providing a universal and economic interface onto the data model. The use of an XML format combined with the scripting languages such as JavaScript, and the Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL) allows the user to move between different views of the data within the browser, without reference to the server. This allows the possibility of user profiles providing customisable views. Further, the data model can also be modified in XML and transmitted back to the central repository. Thus an easy to use editor can be distributed to the user via their desktop browser.

As the model is developed, decisions are taken on the design of the model. These decisions and the reasons behind them are vital to the understanding of any future user. RDF is being used to provide such contextual information, which is supplied to the end user who can then discover the context in which the model has been designed. Thus, links to explanatory text, constraints, and company standards can be provided. Such explanations can also be in audio or video formats. The RDF description can also be used to apply constraints on the data model, or constraints on the contextual information itself. As the data model becomes subject to extension and restriction according to the circumstances in use, additional context can be provided to track the changes and record the additional reasoning behind its evolution. Thus an audit trail can be established through the variants on the model. Again all this can be presented and edited across the WWW using standard browsers.

Please contact:
Brian Matthews - CLRC
Tel: +44 1235 44 6648
E-mail: B.M.Matthews@rl.ac.uk