Implementing SIF at the State/Commonwealth Level
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In the fall of 2001, Visual Software began its journey to take its technology that "added services to existing applications without requiring changes be made to those applications" and modify them to work with an emerging educational standard called SIF, or the Schools Interoperability Framework. This new standard had the promise, and in later years, advantage of allowing educational applications from any compatible vendor to exchange information with any other compatible vendor.
In 2007, with the acquisition of our first larger customer (London, with 1.7 million students and 2,700 schools), we began a process to re-design all of our products from the ground up to handle implementations this large and larger where the infrastructure is implemented in a single location and is shared by all the endpoints.
For example, using the SIF terminology, when data is passed from one application to another where many applications are involved, the data transmission and security is handled by a piece of software called by a broker or "Zone Integration Server (ZIS)". In the model used in several states, this piece of software is replicated and maintained at every district.
State-Level Shared Components
At the SEA, we've seen several needs that can be addressed efficiently using SIF, including:
- Basic data collection and consolidation of data from district Student Information Systems into an Operational Data Store (ODS). This might include:
- SIF-enabled applications
- Applications that can produce CSV files
- Enhanced data collection from multiple applications at districts into an Enterprise Data Store (EDS), including:
- HR Systems (more complete staff information)
- Special Education Systems (more complete information than is stored in SIS)
- Identity (Directory) Management
- Student ID creation / Records Transfer
Visual Software has COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) Applications that address a number of these needs, plus the infrastructure needed to support them:
The Operational / Enterprise Data Store (ODS/EDS) — Veracity™
Veracity is an out-of-the box Enterprise-class, SIF-based, application that maintains a consolidated repository of the data it collects from school district applications in real-time, as well as providing the following:
- the ability to data quality check the collected data in real-time against policies established by the SEA (guidelines for collections);
- the ability to notify districts where they are with respect to their readiness regarding the next collection cycle in summary form;
- a secure interface for district staff to access that lets them see, in detailed form, error details so that the issues can be resolved in source systems, thereby eliminating them permanently;
- optionally, a foundation for a document management system whereby documents (scanned images or any other digital files) can be attached to any record collected and stored in the data store. Depending on how it is set up, the document store itself can be at the SEA or at the district.
Because it has built-in data quality checking rules, it can also be deployed as a "data quality gateway" — as a front end to other systems such as those that assign identity values (Student IDs, Staff IDs, School IDs, etc.), those that prepare data for federal reporting and others that need to be assured that the data has been verified before it is passed to them.
When states prepare reports to be sent to the federal department of education, the data typically:
- needs to go through a validation process to make sure it passed SEA-level checks and is consistent between districts
- needs to be converted to a format consistent with the US Department-defined CEDS schema
To help in this process, we have developed our Acuity™ product. Acuity works either with raw data from school district zones or from a post Veracity "data quality gateway" zone to receive input data in SIF format and store it in a CEDS-like form (Why "CEDS-like"? — see Why does Acuity™ use a CEDS-Like Database)
If connected to school district raw data, Acuity will combine SIF objects as needed (or split them) to create the equivalent CEDS objects, perform any translations of the data that is required and keep the CEDS repository up to date in real-time as the data is received from the Student Information Systems at the districts.
If connected to a Veracity "data quality gateway" clean zone, it will perform the same activities, but the data may be pre-synchronized (for example, all of the student demographic data for a given student may arrive at the same time even though it was not sent that way by the originating Student Information System — the rules in Veracity might have been written told hold off sending a student's enrollment information if the corresponding student demographic wasn't sent for some reason).
Available Acuity / CEDS Implementations
Although our product line is mostly implemented using Microsoft technologies, the CEDS database itself may be stored in the following formats:
- Microsoft SQL Server (2008 R2, 2012 R2, 2014, 2016)
- Oracle 12c
To connect everything together, Visual Software offers three products:
At the foundation of any SIF deployment is a Zone Integration Server (ZIS) (broker). It is software, the invisible courier that reliably delivers information from one source to one or more destinations. Not blindly, but aware of the information objects that are of interest to the various applications, aware of what they’re privileged to send and receive, and aware of the security requirements of each application’s connections. Translating this awareness into enforced policies, it provides secure and reliable message broker services.
ZIAgent™ is a full-featured, configurable SIF agent designed to work with existing applications (in contrast with an Agent Development Kit that requires that the agent be written). It is an alternative to the error-prone process of custom-developing an agent from scratch or by using an ADK because the agent itself has been developed, tested, debugged, streamlined and certified many times over. ZIAgent can typically be fully configured and SIF-certified in a matter of days with no programming and with few or no modifications to the host application.
Mimic is an application that allows applications participate in a SIF collaborative that were never intended for such purposes. Through repeatedly exporting key information through CSV (Comma-Separated Values files), the applications can update its state in a simple, universal format and store them in a common location. By comparing what it sees on a periodic basis to what it saw the last time it inspected the same type file from the same source, Mimic can determine what records were added, updated and deleted and publish SIF events as if the application had a real SIF agent. Lastly, it can respond to queries from the other subscribing members of the zone when they made requests for data without needing to contact the original application.
All of our applications are available as highly configurable commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software. This means that the state can choose implementation models ranging from minimal support where their internal IT staff performs most of the work (after being trained by Visual Software staff) to one where Visual Software staff can provide assistance during the entire process.
For privacy reasons, we typically encourage states to host the student data in their data centers. To aid in this effort, we offer number of means to help them make this as cost effective and painless as possible, including enterprise automation facilities optimized for the unique characteristics of these applications.
If you would like more information, please feel free to contact us at <AskMe @ VisualSI.com> or give us a call during US East Coast business hours at +1 (215) 968‑3000.