Software Framework Opens Up Data-Sharing

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The Schools Interoperability Framework, a method of exchanging data among various school software applications, is ready, finally, to give a technical boost to schools’ ability to use data to improve student achievement.

“I can confidently say we have over 40 states implementing SIF at either the state or district level—in 250 districts serving 2.5 million students,” said Larry L. Fruth II, the executive director of the Washington-based School Interoperability Framework Association.

See Also
Read the accompanying story, “ A Formula for Data Exchange”

Mr. Fruth, a former state education technology director in Ohio, said an increasing number of K-12 schools are beginning to use SIF as a criterion in software purchasing. (The framework’s shorthand form is an acronym, pronounced “siff.”)

Oklahoma enacted a law in 2003 making it the first state to mandate that the student- information systems used in all school districts in the state be compliant with SIF by the 2005-06 school year.

SIF was also highlighted in the National Education Technology Plan, released last month, as a key tool for managing education data more effectively. SIF can help support accountability and assessment to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, according to a white paper that the federal government commissioned in developing the national plan.

In the Anoka-Hennepin, Minn., school district, for example, in which most database software is SIF-compliant, the library software receives a digital batch of the names and other information for its 41,000 students every summer, in an automated transfer from the student-information system. Similar transfers across 40 district departments take place even though the software applications were produced by different companies, said Patrick Plant, the district’s director of information technology.

Evolving Technologies

The concept of SIF has been around since 1998. It received its first burst of publicity a year later, when Bill Gates, the chairman of the Microsoft Corp., promoted it at the national conference of the American Association of School Administrators in New Orleans. SIF would be an element of a “central nervous system” of data for school districts, Mr. Gates said then. ("Gates Downloads a Proposal for Schools," March 3, 1999.)

At the time, Microsoft was the leader in developing SIF, with less than a score of other software companies on board. Leadership of the project has since changed hands twice and is now managed by the 1-year-old SIF association. The nonprofit group has about 250 members, including software companies, but a majority of its members are education associations, states, and school districts.

Mr. Plant, who is on the SIF board of directors and has been a participant in SIF development since the beginning, ticks off many reasons why it has taken more than five years to put the concept into practice. Some of those include the complexity of schools and of the development task, inadequate funding, and changes in management and technology.

But now the SIF specifications are “very comprehensive,” Mr. Plant said. “That does not mean it’s completed—it’s going to be an ongoing thing, just as technology is iterative, evolving.”

Exchanging Data

The Schools Interoperability Framework provides a cloverleaf for the data highways within a school district, and potentially between districts and to the state and the federal government.

SIF also sets the rules and signs that allow data to travel those roads, to and from applications that handle student and school information; transportation and geographic information; library automation, human resources, and financial systems; food-services information; and data warehouses and reporting systems.

SIF specifications are based on agreements among software publishers about how their software describes data, so it can be recognized and used by any compliant software and for many different purposes. Based on those agreements, publishers must create “SIF agents,” pieces of code that interpret their applications’ data and business rules into a language understood throughout the SIF universe. Another required element is the SIF “zone integration server,” a software traffic cop for routing the data among applications. Several companies sell versions of the software, which may reside on a school district’s computer or be hosted by an outside company.

SIF delivers immediate benefits to school districts in eliminating the need to key in student information multiple times—up to 10 times in a typical district each year, according to an estimate by the association. Based on that estimate, a district of 18,000 students would save the equivalent of six full-time employees, SIFA officials said.

In the Anoka-Hennepin district’s libraries alone, personnel have saved two weeks of data-entry time each year through better data sharing, Mr. Plant said.

But he and other experts hope for a more profound benefit. They say SIF unfetters districts from sticking with a single software company for most software functions. Currently, the cost of copying data into incompatible applications often dissuades districts from switching.

SIF board member Steve Curtis, the chief operations officer of Edustructures LLC, a company in South Jordan, Utah, that specializes in SIF applications, said the innovation is a “leveler” for the school software industry, because it allows small or specialized companies to focus on the applications they do best.

What SIF doesn’t do is help individual software applications function better, experts say. And it may not make much of a difference in districts that are not striving for interoperability.

Vol. 24, Issue 21, Page 12

Published in Print: February 2, 2005, as Software Framework Opens Up Data-Sharing
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