a grandiose but (hopefully) practical idea

Jim Croft jrc at ANBG.GOV.AU
Wed Mar 14 08:24:28 CST 2001

> > I don't like Zbig, not because the idea is flawed, but because it is based
> > on Z39.50, and none of my applications can use it...  now, if they were to
> > go down the XML route, we could upgrade browsers and start to party...
> A few details about how databases might be implemented in XML  to do much
> the same as Zbig would be real interesting, Jim. Could you give us a
> reference or a hint?

I was going to suggest roping Stan Blum into this discussion, but he
could not contain himself and has jumped in already...  if you want
technical details and explanation about how it might all work, Stan's the

Stan and I have been squabbling about Z39.50 for years now, hurling
abuse at each other on this topic each time we meet.  Stan likes it, I
reckon it is a mildly interesting dead end going nowhere.  The library
community seem to be only people to have embraced it with any gusto but
I have yet to see an application that makes a person gasp in amazement
and shout 'gotta get me one of them!'. I do not get excited about
anything that does not run on a more or less standard internet client or
browser and that isn't delivered by a more or less standard http server
and database portal.

The herbarium community, at least in Australia, has been spewing
herbarium data at each other and suckng it in according to the HISPID
data definitions and format.  NSW herbarium has a established a
background process, a sort of haustorium, that routinely checks and
raids the CANB database for records of duplicate specimens to save
themselves the effort of typing and they are just waiting to be able
to latch onto other databases.  The other herbaria are poised to
retaliate in an act of mutual parasitism.

As part of the Australia's Virtual Herbarium project, the HIPSID
specification is being rewritten in XML and the integrated access to the
nation's eight major herbarium collections (6 million specimens all up)
will be done using this. The prototype returns and maps c. 2500 records
of _Acacia aneura_ from 5 herbaria in less than a couple of minutes. The
gateway is being redeveloped and we expect improvement in performance as
well as functionality.  Should be ready by June.

The good thing about the XML format is that you are no longer tied to
any particular display or report format, or to a particular piece of
software or other application.  With the application of style sheets you
can make the data look however you want and with the reletively simple
transformation functions you can change it into whatever you want.
Doesn't quite work on the browser client side yet, but is supposed to
accordin to the specs... real soon now...

The XML specs are all on w3c.org - a good read for anyone interested
managing biological data...  :)

We have been experimenting with ABRS on marking up, managing and
delivering the _Flora of Australia_ as an XML database and the results
are really encouraging.  We are working on the server side at teh
moment, just so the community can see the results while browser
technology catches up. On a lower level I have been trialing the use of
an XML template for field notes rather than a tailor-made collections
database for PCs (which are invevitably too complex or not sophisticated
enough); with no more than a browser and a text editor the results have
been quite promising.

This probably didn't answer your question...  will leave that to Stan...


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