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Along the Digital Path
Digital Standards Development

by Philip Lively

This is the first of a two-part article in this issue on ASTM’s Digital Path Initiative (click here for part 2). Phil Lively, ASTM vice president of information technology development and application, discusses digital initiatives that will improve ASTM’s openness, transparency, and potential for global participation.

For some time ASTM International has capitalized on the emergence of the Internet by using it as an electronic network for developing and delivering standards. In the 1990s members of ASTM committees began to use Internet e-mail to exchange draft standards and, in 2000, ASTM conducted its first e-ballot by combining e-mail notification with Web voting. In 1997 customers were given the capability of purchasing and receiving standards in real time from ASTM’s Web site. And recently, committee members were provided with meeting minutes, membership rosters, and other documents through their committee Web pages.

Now ASTM is stepping up its efforts even more to enhance the development and delivery of standards through modern information technology, particularly the Internet. It calls these efforts the ASTM Digital Path Initiative.

What Is the ASTM Digital Path?

The ASTM Digital Path is an initiative to capture all ASTM standards and related documents in electronic files, maintain and distribute them electronically, and provide for an entirely electronic path through the lifecycle of all standards. In other words, ASTM wants to create a complete digital workflow that begins with the first draft of a standard and lasts until the approved standard is delivered to customers. Many of the digital pieces needed for the path already exist. The Initiative will develop any missing pieces and tie them all together in an integrated and automated path.

Goals of the Initiative

ASTM has several strategic and organizational goals that it hopes to achieve through the Digital Path Initiative. Among them are:

• Provide the optimum digital environment for technical committees to develop standards. This includes the ability for members to self-serve any needed files or documents through their desktop computer, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
• Improve and increase worldwide participation in the ASTM standards process by using the Internet to overcome the barriers of time and distance. Stakeholders should be able to participate meaningfully through their desktop computer.
• Publish and deliver new and revised standards shortly after they are approved.
• Capture all ASTM standards work in the drafting stage and display their status as work items on ASTM’s Web site.
• Integrate all internal and external ASTM systems.
• Achieve cost reductions through improved committee and staff productivity.

Organizational and Technical Concerns

ASTM is undertaking its Digital Path Initiative well aware of several concerns that must be taken into account.

One of the first is to eliminate any perception that the Digital Path will exclude some stakeholders from participation. ASTM will continue to support traditional means of participation such as physical meetings, mail, phone, and fax. Stakeholders unable to participate digitally will still be able to participate in an effective fashion.

Another concern facing ASTM is the complexity of interacting with thousands of stakeholders who may have heterogeneous electronic environments, restrictive organizational policies on Internet use, and various levels of software and Internet skill. ASTM has tried to address this concern by recently establishing a member help desk, which offers phone and e-mail support for ASTM members. In addition, ASTM eschews specialized software in favor of common software likely to be found on most desktops.

A final concern is the technical limitations that may hinder full implementation of the Initiative. One example that members have already bumped into is their inability to cut and paste all formatting from a word processing file into an HTML comment box. This limitation hinders electronic balloting by reducing the clarity of some electronic communications. Another is the non-existence of software to test and translate member Word files for style and structure compliance with ASTM’s SGML-tagged publishing system. Without such a tool, member files cannot be imported without significant manual scrutiny.

Pieces in Place

As detailed in part two of this article, many pieces of the Digital Path are already in place; I will highlight just a few.

Word templates and Word versions of ASTM standards are available to members to author new standards or revise existing ones. Once the proposed standard is captured in Word, members can distribute their drafts for comment either by using e-mail or by using ASTM Forums, which are digital work chambers where small groups can store documents and offer participants the opportunity to append comments and alternative wording. These Forums are Web based.

Once the standard draft is ready for ballot, ASTM now offers Web balloting, a system in which technical committee members can view the draft document or proposed revision through their Web browser and cast their vote online. They also have the capability of inserting rationales, comments, and alternative wording in support of negative votes.

Once the standard has been approved, ASTM’s publishing system can capture and store the standard in an electronic file that can be used for multiple outputs. These include various file formats such as PDF, Word, and print files.

Pieces to Come

Several additional pieces of the Digital Path Initiative are under active development.

First, ASTM is developing a database to capture complete information about the draft standards activities under way in its technical committees. We call these activities Work Items, and they include such items as new standards or revisions. ASTM is working on a Web-based submittal system that would allow committees to document their work items and display them on the Web as well as feed them via e-mail to interested stakeholders. This system should debut in 2002. It will also be integrated with ASTM’s balloting system so that work item status will be automatically updated on the Web as the work item moves into and through the balloting process.

The second piece we are working on is to capture balloting results, including all the supporting documentation for negatives and comments, in a digital file that can be used to provide technical committees with a Web ballot summary. One possible outcome of this effort is to distribute negatives and comments immediately as they are cast so that they can be addressed in a more timely fashion.

We are also planning to provide committee members with the option to conduct and participate in online meetings via their Web browser and telephone. This capability will be another digital option, on top of e-mail and forums, for our stakeholders to participate via their desktop and the Internet.

An enhanced data warehouse is also being planned, which will allow members, customers, and other stakeholders to access needed files on a 24/7 basis directly from their desktop. For example, members with appropriate access rights will be able to obtain, on a self-serve basis, Word files needed for standards revision work. Customers and interested members will be able to order historical standards that will be stored in the data warehouse. The warehouse will also be used to feed ASTM’s on-demand production system to produce print on demand, books on demand and custom CDs.

Lastly, the Digital Path Initiative will seek to more fully integrate ASTM’s several databases to enable real time information sharing, which will mean that all stakeholders will have access to the latest possible information about any standards item being tracked on its Digital Path.

Summary

In 2002, members and customers of ASTM will see several more pieces put in place to further the Digital Path Initiative. Development and delivery of ASTM standards will become even more Web enabled, which will increase the openness, transparency, and participation possibilities in the ASTM process. //

Copyright 2002, ASTM

Philip Lively is vice president of Information Technology Development and Application at ASTM.