Methodology For Providing National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) Model Understanding to XML and NIEM Novices

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expand Betty Harvey

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Methodology For Providing National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) Model Understanding to XML and NIEM Novices

Balisage: The Markup Conference 2014
August 5 - 8, 2014


Every large project has to create and maintain documentation that conveys information about every aspect of that project. These include but are not limited to:

  • Data models

  • Information consumers

  • Data flows

  • Information transformations

  • Information storage

  • Etc.

In a recent large project we were faced with all of these issues. The data model that was used was a customized National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) data model. The NIEM data model is very complex. NIEM uses redirection and references that on the surface makes the data model hard to understand and navigate. We were faced with the prospect of trying to convey the data model to literally hundreds, possibly thousands, of business analysts and developers (mostly JAVA) in an efficient and understandable way. The consumers of the data model were unknown to us. Their skill level and understanding of NIEM were unknown, although we suspected that this understanding was low, especially where NIEM was concerned.

This paper will describe an approach that I developed for conveying the complexities of the data model. Although, at first I thought it was a 'crazy' idea, it proved to be very useful and much more efficient in understanding the data model.


NIEM is an XML vocabulary for describing information. NEIM creates profiles based on specific business domains. NIEM was designed as an exchange model. The XML schemas and information artifacts are packaged into what NIEM calls an Information Exchange Package Documentation (IEPD). The directory structure of an IEPD is complex. At the leaf of every directory are one or more schemas that is referenced by another schema. Individuals that have worked with XML are able to pick up a W3C Schema, DTD or RelaxNG schema and obtain an understanding of the schema. The fragmentation and referencing used in NIEM makes it virtually impossible to gain knowledge by reading the schemas.

The project that this paper concerns was and continues to be a very large project. There are hundreds of organizations (federal government, state governments, local governments and commercial) that were required to use the IEPD to exchange information between the various organizations.

There are also hundreds, maybe thousands of consumers of the information. The actual consumers of the IEPD were unknown at the project level, except at a high level. We knew that the types of consumers would be:

  • Business Analysts

  • Programmers (JAVA, C++, possibly COBOL)

  • Technical Writers

  • Relational Database Developers/Administrators

  • Testers

  • XML Professionals (XQuery, XSLT, Transformations)

We were faced with the challenge of how to provide documentation that would convey information about 460+ elements in a meaningful way to prospective consumers. Even with a constraint schema, most of the elements were optional and used based on specific scenarios of the data.

NIEM Directory Structure

The structure of the schema is rigidly controlled by NIEM and the IEPD specification. Below is an example of an IEPD that was used to support this methodology.

Figure 1: IEPD Directory Structure

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-001.jpg

NIEM Directory Structure

The IEPD in the above directory structure contains a total of 30 schemas.

NIEM Flexibility

NIEM by default has no constraints. What this means is that the structure is somewhat rigorous but all the elements, except the root element are optional. Most organizations cannot sustain a data model without constraints. NIEM has a concept of 'unconstrained' and 'constrained' data model. If an organization decides to constrain its data model it must maintain 2 copies of the schema (constrained and unconstrained) and provide both in the IEPD.

NIEM and Substitution Groups

NIEM uses substitution groups instead for choices in the schema. Substitution groups are choices. The element that is included in the root model is not valid in the XML instance but can be substituted by other elements. The use of substitution groups is useful but can be very confusing to both business analysts and programmers. Also, many web services software could not consume the schemas with included substitution groups. We were never able to determine the exact reason but my hypothesis is that many of the substitution groups are cyclical and the software cannot handle the recursion. Substitution groups and software consumption of schema's that contain substitution groups is possibly a subject for another paper and not part of this paper!

NIEM and Referencing

Although NIEM is an XML exchange model, in actuality you can envision it more as a relational database model. Instead of a true hierarchical model where relationships can be construed by ancestor or descendant components, NIEM uses XML ID/IDREF constructs to provide relationships between different components. For example, in the model we were working with there were several major structures that belonged to a person. In other models you might embed all the information related a person with the person information. In NIEM, these components are separate and the information is 'tied' together by using a reference element:

       <md-core:RoleOfPersonReference s:ref="Dad"/>

In the above example, this piece of information is referring back to the 'Dad' person. One of the sample XML documents that were provided as part of the documentation package for the IEPD had over 70 reference elements.


In the IEPD that was developed, there were a total of 15 namespaces. The more namespaces that you have, the more complicated the developing processes against the XML can be. Using 15 namespaces became challenging, not only for us but for developers with exchange partners. The 15 namespace prefixes that are used in the IEPD are: exch, ext, fips_6-4, i, i2, iso_3166, nc, niem-xsd, s, scr, usps, and 3 custom namespaces used by the project.

Nillable Elements

Nillable elements are elements that are allowed to be empty. This is true even when the element has required children elements. Nillable elements are slightly different than true empty elements. Elements can be defined as having no content, or empty. For example, HTML elements <br/> and <hr/> elements are empty because they are using to define either a line break or a horizontal rule. Content would be meaningless for these elements. Whereas, nillable elements are designed to have content but the schema says they can be empty.

NIEM elements, by default, allow elements to be nillable. The NIEM specification was the first XML vocabulary that I have used that has actually used the 'nillable' capability of the XML schema. The use of nillable elements caused problems with both understanding the model and with software. Let's say you have the following model for a Person. In this model, the <PersonName> is required. The <PersonName> requires a <FirstName> and <LastName>. <MiddleName> is optional.

Figure 2: Person Name is Nillable

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-002.png

Normally you would look at this model and see that the following XML tagging is valid:




However, when the "nillable='true'" attribute is set on the element declaration than the entire element is allowed to be null. By default, most NIEM elements are set as nillable. Therefore, the following is allowed for a Person described above:

   <PersonName xsi:nil="true"/>


Considering the challenges that we had and the reality that we weren't in a position where we could adequately document and convey the challenges of the complex model, it was necessary to 'think out of the box'. The model was complex and different components were required for different scenarios. These various scenarios were provided as XML documents as part of the IEPD documentation. Also, Schematron was developed to ensure that the XML validated against the various scenarios.

We understood that looking at the XML itself would only only provide a limited understanding of what the data actually means. The sample documents were heavily commented but traversing and understanding 3,000 + lines of XML would be difficult. In order to achieve success, the exchange partners had to understand the underlying XML to ensure that the exchange of information between partners was understandable.

I came up with an approach that would take the XML, turn it into PDF that looked like the XML, including 'pointy brackets' using XSLT and XSL-FO. The approach provided the following functionality:

  • The XML was kept intact.

  • Cross-references were 'live' hyperlinks. This allowed the reader to see how the cross-references worked.

  • A navigation bar was added to allow traversing the model and visualizing the structure of the XML.

  • Comments were included in the text and highlighted as comments.

  • A table was included at the end of the XML to show all the cross-references, by element and by ID.

  • A data dictionary of all the elements was included at the end of the PDF file. This provided documentation in a single file.

Default XML Template

Surprisingly, it is relatively easy to display the XML as XML, including pointy brackets and attributes. The default template took care of the bulk of the conversion. Below is the code for the default template:

 <xsl:template match="*">
            <xsl:if test="@xsi:nil='true'">
                  <fo:block>Element allowed to be nil (empty).</fo:block>
            <fo:block margin-left="15pt" margin-top="2pt" linefeed-treatment="preserve">
                        <xsl:when test="@s:id">
                              <xsl:attribute name="id">
                                    <xsl:value-of select="@s:id"/>
                        <xsl:when test="contains(substring-after(name(), 'md-ee'), 'Eligibility')">
                              <xsl:attribute name="id">
                                    <xsl:value-of select="substring-after(name(), 'md-ee:')"/>
                  <fo:inline color="maroon" font-weight="bold"> &lt;<xsl:value-of select="name()"
                              /><xsl:if test="@*"><xsl:call-template name="createAttributes"
                        <xsl:if test="@xsi:nil"> xsi:nil="<xsl:value-of select="@xsi:nil"/></xsl:if>
                        <xsl:if test="@xsi:nil">/</xsl:if>&gt;<fo:inline color="black"><xsl:apply-templates/></fo:inline></fo:inline>
                  <xsl:if test="@s:metadata">
                        <xsl:call-template name="createMetadata"/>
                       <xsl:when test="@xsi:nil='true'"></xsl:when>
                       <xsl:otherwise> <fo:inline color="maroon" font-weight="bold"> &lt;/<xsl:value-of select="name()"

Below is the resulting PDF output from the default template.

Figure 3: Resulting Display from PDF File

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-003.jpg

Headers and Footers

I felt it was important to provide both headers and footers in the PDF file. The headers provided information about which element you were viewing. The footer contained page numbers. Both the recto (right-hand) and verso (left-hand) pages were formatted appropriately. The header information shows the hierarchy of the elements on the page.

NOTE: Part of the header is redacted.

Figure 4: Example Header

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-004.jpg

Figure 5: Footer Example

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-005.jpg


The sample XML documents had many comments. These were used to convey important information and insight into the model for the users of the XML. It was important that these comments be included in the resulting PDF. In the XML instance the scenario was described as an XML comment. Below is an example of a comment that is in the XML instance.

Figure 6: Comment Example

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-006.jpg

Dealing with Attributes

There are only 3 attributes that are used in the XML. The default template called another template to create the attributes.

  <xsl:template name="createAttributes">
            <xsl:if test="@s:id">&#160;s:id="<xsl:value-of select="@s:id"/>"</xsl:if>
            <xsl:if test="@s:ref">&#160;s:ref="<xsl:value-of select="@s:ref"/>"</xsl:if>
            <xsl:if test="@s:metadata">&#160;s:metadata="<xsl:value-of select="@s:metadata"

Figure 7: Example of Attribute Output

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-007.jpg

Major Sections

I wanted the ability to differentiate the different sections. A separate template was made for major sections. This provided the ability to have titles and have the sections start on new pages. This enabled better readability of the XML. Below is an example of a template for a person section.

Figure 8: Person Major Section

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-008.jpg

Navigation Bar/Bookmarks

A navigation bar was created to allow the reader to navigate the hierarchy. It included expanding and collapsing of the hierarchy. The navigation bar proved to be one of the most useful features of the PDF. Business Analysts do not have XML tools and to our surprise, neither do programmers. Navigating the schema in a graphical representation with tools such as Oxygen, XML Spy and Stylus Studio are really beneficial. With NIEM it is almost essential. To our surprise we found that most organizations to not provide XML tools to their programmers. They only have access to tools available in JAVA toolkits. Most programmers were using SOAPUI for development and testing. Therefore, the navigation bar became quite useful.

Figure 9: Snippet of Navigation Bar

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-009.jpg


As stated previously NIEM relies heavily on cross-references. In one sample there were over 70 cross-references. In the PDF, cross-references are 'hot'. This enables the user to link to the location where the information is located. We used 'meaningful' identifiers in the samples, just to make it easier to understand and navigate the XML. However, in practice the id's are normally not human ingestible. As a standard all blue text in the PDF are active links.

The PDF created a table of cross-references which provided just another look at how the cross-references actually worked.

Figure 10: Active Cross-references

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-010.jpg

Figure 11: Cross-Reference Table

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-011.jpg

The last column of the table is a hyperlink to the location in the PDF where the id attribute is located.

Data Dictionary

The final component in the PDF included a Data Dictionary of the schema. The NIEM specification requires that all elements are documented. The XSLT traversed the schema and created a data dictionary that contained all the elements, sorted alphabetically, and their definition. This provided a mechanism for the user to quickly find the definition for an element. In most cases the elements were self-describing, i.e., <PersonAmericanIndianOrAlaskaNativeIndicator>, but there were elements that were named ambiguously.

The navigation bar provided an expansion to link to an individual alphabetic location.

Figure 12: Data Dictionary Navigation Bar

image ../../../vol13/graphics/Harvey01/Harvey01-012.jpg


I believe that the benefits to this approach are many. The users very quickly became dependent on the PDF to help them understand the model. Most developers and testers used the PDF version of the XML as a guideline instead of the native XML sample that was provided to them. Before the PDF was developed internal testers had many questions and misunderstandings of the model. Although the PDF didn't completely alleviate questions, the amount of questions were reduced in number.

The PDF file was understandable to any discipline in the business and development process. The result of the PDF was:

  • Quicker understanding of data model

  • More accurate understanding of data model

  • Faster development

  • Easier validation and testing by independent testers

  • Less coding errors

Although there isn't any way to quantitatively evaluate the cost-savings, I believe that the PDF did result in cost savings through the entire life-cycle.


Although this approach may seem a little 'extreme', I believe that it is very beneficial to providing information on complex data models. It proved invaluable for our project. I also believe that this approach would be useful to any complex XML project. It provides clarity of the model that may not be available otherwise. The XML schema (especially NIEM) can only provide so much information about how to knit the data together.

It also amazes me how many organizations do not provide XML tools to their developers and other individuals working with XML. The cost benefits they would reap by providing adequate tools would far outweigh the cost of the software. Without these tools navigating and understanding complex models are difficult at best. I don't have a scientific analysis of how many of the programmers on this project did not have adequate XML tools but I guess that at least 75% did not.

If faced with the same challenges in the future, would I take this same approach. Unequivocally yes!


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