NEN Hackathon 2022: 48 hours to optimize standards data

In April, we at Propylon teamed up with our partners at Réalta Online to participate in the NEN Hackathon, a two-day event organized by NEN, the Royal Netherlands Standardization Institute. The focus was on developing new and innovative ways to unlock the potential of data from standards.

The proposal: solving a real challenge

Team Propylon/Réalta answered this challenge with a proposal to demonstrate ways to make it easier for users to incorporate standards into their own systems or documentation, be it manuals, specifications, guidance, or spreadsheets used for checklists.

Propylon CIO, Sean McGrath, notes that this is a challenge we have seen for our clients in the audit and accounting space: “In auditing and accounting, there is a standards ‘footprint’ that is updated regularly by standards development organizations such as IFRS, FASB, etc. For an audit firm creating an audit manual, keeping up to date with this regularly changing standards footprint can be a real challenge.”

One problem we have seen is that users typically access standards from a library or digital database. The reality is that implementing standards means that users will copy pieces out of standards documents and into their own documentation. However, there is often no easy way when using that documentation to tell that it is still up to date. In addition, when standards change, there is no way of linking between what was in the original standard and the manuals and guidance that govern a company’s way of working. This means that users must manually identify each document in which the standard is used and manage any knock-on impacts.

In auditing and accounting, there is a standards ‘footprint’ that is updated regularly by standards development organizations such as IFRS, FASB, etc. For an audit firm creating an audit manual, keeping up to date with this regularly changing standards footprint can be a real challenge.

Sean McGrath, CIO at Propylon

Why it’s important to move away from cut and paste

Providing a means of consistently linking between the master document and wherever content has been copied from it allows content users to move away from cut and paste. For those companies that operate in industries that necessitate adhering to multiple standards and regulations, managing the number of updates has grown beyond manual methods.

As well as requiring a lot of time and effort, it can also leave a firm open to compliance issues or risk to the business. Ultimately, manually identifying each piece of content that references a standard leaves firms open to the possibility of missing something. Automating this task ensures that documents are not out of date before they’re used.

New ways to deliver content

XML makes it easy to transform content into different outputs like a PDF or HTML. It can also make it easy to pull out sections of a standard to create a preview. However, this is only the beginning of what XML can offer.

David Ratcliffe, Director at Réalta Online, says: “It’s certainly true that when you implement an XML-based publishing chain, you probably tidy things up; you get more consistency, faster publishing and you save money. But I don’t think that’s why you do XML. You do it because you can enrich it with other information that can add more value to the user or make the document easier to use. I think that’s really where the benefits of XML should be.”

In implementing the proposal, the team demonstrated the value of enriching XML to make it easier for a reader to assess the business impact of changes to standards. They added information to the XML to identify parts of the standard that contained, for example, requirements, recommendations, and possibilities.

Then they showed how users could look at their documentation and take advantage of ‘smart links’ to quickly see whether changes in requirements would lead to essential changes in their business.

This ‘smart linking’ capability between a user document and the master version of a standard opens the door to a wealth of opportunities to create value for both standards organizations and users. As David put it: “I think the interesting thing is that once you’ve got links between the users’ content and the standard, there’s a real incentive for them to maintain a subscription because the value is not just in being able to see the content, it’s in being able to see that the content is still current and do something about it if it’s not.”

It’s certainly true that when you implement an XML-based publishing chain, you probably tidy things up; you get more consistency, faster publishing and you save money. But I don’t think that’s why you do XML. You do it because you can enrich it with other information that can add more value to the user or make the document easier to use. I think that’s really where the benefits of XML should be.

David Ratcliffe, Director at Réalta Online

To the finish line

With 48 hours to deliver the proposal, time was a key hurdle. In the end, it all paid off when our team received positive feedback for demonstrating a solution that was practical and applicable across all standards. A third-place finish was the cherry on the cake following a challenging but rewarding event.

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