Implementing an Akoma Ntoso Editor
Yes, we’ve now built a full real-world legislative drafting editor using the final release of the new OASIS standard for legislative XML known as Akoma Ntoso. No, it wasn’t easy, but drafting tools never are. While our project is not yet a finished implementation, it shows that Akoma Ntoso is adaptable to some of the most challenging demands it will face as a world-wide standard for digital legislation.
Akoma Ntoso is a very ambitious standard. It strives to anticipate all the possible needs that jurisdictions around the world will have while also planning for a wide range of useful applications that can be built on top of the data. The result is a sophisticated schema with many more features than any one implementation will ever need.
The trick is being able to mould Akoma Ntoso to fit the unique needs of a jurisdiction while also providing a user experience that is natural and fits the problem space exactly. This was the challenge that led us to develop a custom web-based XML editor. After surveying the available market of web-based editors, we quickly found that none would be sufficiently adaptable to allow Akoma Ntoso to realize its true potential.
There are two aspects of building an Akoma Ntoso editor that have required particular attention:
- Adapting Akoma Ntoso to fit the jurisdiction’s Documents
If you’ve taken a look at Akoma Ntoso, you know that it’s jam-packed full of tags and features, far more than are ever necessary in a single implementation. Trying to create a single comprehensive implementation of it all, a one-size-fits-all approach, will only yield an overly complicated and unusable tool that will be suitable to nobody. At the same time, despite Akoma Ntoso’s efforts to cover all possible scenarios, there are still gaps in the schema where specifics details to individual jurisdictions are not covered. Akoma Ntoso anticipates this shortcoming by providing a pattern-centric mechanism for extending a set of generic elements to fill in the gaps.
An authoring tool needs to hide or omit the unused parts of Akoma Ntoso, adapt the parts that are being used to fit the specific requirements of a jurisdiction, and allow for extension of Akoma Ntoso using the generic mechanism for extension in such a way that these extensions would appear to be seamless. As it turns out, almost a third of the elements we’ve implemented are extension elements. The result is an editor that allows a fully compliant Akoma Ntoso document to be drafted (correct by construction), while at the same time ensuring that the document fully complies with the jurisdiction’s model for how that document be represented.
- Adapting the editor to fit the jurisdiction’s Document
XML authoring tools don’t just work out of the box. Rather, they’re toolkits that allow documents that conform to a specific schema or model to be authored. How much flexibility this toolkit provides dictates the type of documents that can be authored. Sadly, it’s difficult for any editor to provide infinite flexibility in any dimension – so very careful consideration is necessary to understand whether or not the editor can be adapted to the need.When we at Xcential implemented California’s bill drafting system a decade ago, we used XMetaL because it provided an extensive customisation capability. Unfortunately, at the outset we failed to realize that XMetaL’s change tracking capabilities were limited and not customisable. When the full challenge of redlining became clear to us well into the project, we realized we were using an editor that couldn’t do the job. Thankfully, the project was able to get (and pay for) the necessary extensions to XMetaL without too much delay.One way to understand this problem is in the diagram below. On the left is the intrinsic capability offered by the authoring tool. On the right is a jurisdiction’s requirement. As XML authoring tools are toolkits, there is always a gap between the intrinsic capabilities on the left and the requirements on the right – and this gap must be closed one way or another. One way is to using any programming API offered to add customisations (shown as A). Another way is to limit the jurisdiction’s requirements (shown as B) to better suit the capabilities of the tool. Usually, it takes a combination of both to arrive at a suitable outcome. If the gap cannot be closed (shown as C), then the project is likely doomed to disappointment or even failure.
One thing we learned early on is that, when it comes to legislative documents, there really isn’t a lot of wiggle-room in the requirements. The form of the documents is often dictated by long established traditions and good luck trying to change that. This is one case where the expression “It will take an Act of Congress” can be quite literally true.
This means that the gap will have to be closed through customization and the effort (and risk) to do so will be quite substantial. XMetaL, way back in 2002, provided an extensive set of programmatic APIs to work from, and that very nearly wasn’t enough. Unfortunately, the newer web-based editors haven’t, for many reasons, come close to matching XMetaL’s level of customisability.
Building our own authoring tool
Understanding the challenges of Akoma Ntoso, our customer’s demanding requirements, and the limitations of the state-of-the-art in web-based authoring tools, we embarked on a project several years ago to build our own XML authoring tool. The result is now used in a number of applications. It’s been quite a challenge – and that’s an understatement. Building a highly configurable web-based XML authoring tool that is truly a step ahead of the old desktop editors of twenty years ago has required us to truly harness every aspect of modern web technologies and methodologies.
The result is an XML authoring tool especially adapted to the needs of Akoma Ntoso. However, it’s not just an Akoma Ntoso editor. It’s an XML authoring tool, capable of adapting to any reasonable XML scheme — for the legislative field, regulatory field, or any similar field where the demands of structured documents require a sophisticated level of customization.
If you want to see our tool in action in a bespoke implementation, here’s an early peek:
(This link shows a dated version at this point. It shows the editor as it was around December of 2016. We’ve advanced quite a bit since then — in both the intrinsic capabilities of the editor an in the capabilities built into the bespoke customisation)