NU Online News Service, April 5, 1:25 p.m. – The U.S. General Accounting Office says the federal government is having some of the same problems adopting XML standards that many life insurance companies and other businesses have been having.

XML advocates say XML standards can slash through the communications barriers now separating one computer system from another, creating the equivalent of a universal language for computer systems.

But first, the GAO says, businesses, government agencies and other users have to agree on the elements that the universal language should include.

Government developers, and others, face “the risk that redundant data definitions, vocabularies, and structures will proliferate,” David McClure, the GAO’s director of information technology management issues, writes in a report available on the Web at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02327.pdf

Developers also face “the potential for proprietary extensions to be built that would defeat XML’s goal of broad interoperability,” McClure warns.

McClure has little advice for federal agencies, other than a recommendation that federal agencies develop a strategy for governmentwide adoption of XML. The strategy could be modeled after the government strategy for implementing the older Electronic Data Interchange data exchange standards, McClure writes.

XML, formally known as the Extensible Markup Language, is an outgrowth of the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Internet makes it easy for users to transmit data from one computer to another, but the second computer often finds it impossible to use the transmitted data.

The World Wide Web Consortium, Geneva, developed XML to provide a set of rules for developing hidden “tags” to describe all of the many different types of information stored in a computer. One tag might identify the number “75,000″ as the number of subscribers of a health insurance plan, while another tag might describe “75,000″ as the annual salary of a corporate manager.

Developers of the Electronic Data Interchange standards had similar goals, but use of EDI standards is limited, because EDI communications depends on customized, proprietary software and expensive, private communications networks, McClure writes.

The Web consortium has succeeded at setting the technical standards needed to implement XML, but “business standards, though equally important, are generally less well-developed,” McClure writes. “Reaching agreement on them is proving to be difficult.”

McClure cites the HR-XML Consortium Inc., Raleigh, N.C., as an example of an XML standards success story. The consortium has developed several sets of standards for exchanging employee identity information, job information and benefits enrollment information.

A second organization, which is not named in the report, the Association for Cooperative Operations Research and Development, Pearl River, N.Y., has taken the lead in developing XML standards for the life insurance, annuity and property-casualty insurance industries.