Easing digital communication across companies one code at a time
August 23, 2021
A variety of scenarios arise daily across the workplace. A company may have different communication-related operations in marketing, technical support, and website management. Oftentimes, the systems operate independently, failing to take advantage of the technology-based solutions that are available to ensure content is consistent and reused across platforms.
Similarly, a startup company might spend countless hours creating new manuals and website content for its products without realizing that systems already exist that would allow them to structure, reuse, and publish content efficiently.
What if a single repository could allow access to all this information?
Carlos Evia, a professor in the School of Communication, spends long hours developing technology-based solutions for workplace communication problems through the use of Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) and Lightweight DITA.
“Digital communication and digital content are everywhere,” Evia said. “There has to be a way of managing the content to make it efficient, inexpensive, and scalable.”
It all started around 2000 when IBM introduced DITA. The tech giant needed consistency in the “how-to” department, particularly in giving people instructions in how to set up computers. As IBM was acquiring smaller companies, it knew it needed an open-source standard to make all content accessible across companies.
This standard, DITA, uses tags of code behind the scenes in XML to allow this content sharing and reuse. Evia gives the practical example of a recipe. Your first step is “chop the onion” and that’s the first step on the website, on the app, in all digital manuals, and everywhere else. If you change that step on one platform to “squeeze the onion,” that step will update across all platforms because of the codes tagged in DITA.
Over the years, DITA has solved a bevy of problems, but there’s been one key issue: XML is bulky and many companies simply don’t have the infrastructure for it. In fact, most web content today is built on HTML and the simpler Markdown.
This is where Lightweight DITA comes into play.
“What Lightweight DITA wants to do is to become a parallel standard for DITA because DITA is not going away,” Evia said. “In parallel, we are also developing the standard for Lightweight DITA, which allows people to structure, process, and then publish your content, not just using XML, but using a simplified version of XML, a version of DITA in HTML, a version of DITA in Markdown, or a combination of all of those depending on the needs that different wings of the organization might have.
“It’s about making the process of information development, content creation, content management, and publishing easier and more accessible to people. With Lightweight DITA, even small companies can get into that, so we want to build bridges that connect those different forms that people use all over the world.”
Evia is the co-chair of the Lightweight DITA subcommittee with the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards along with Michael Priestley, one of the creators of DITA at IBM. Dating back to 2014-2015, their work with Lightweight DITA is continuing to expand in its public reach, including the implementation in Adobe FrameMaker.
Furthermore, Evia includes the content in his courses at Virginia Tech. As the associate dean of transdisciplinary initiatives in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Evia merges insights from multiple disciplines to find solutions. Who knew that coding would ever be useful in the field of communication? That’s exactly what Virginia Tech master’s students in communication have learned when taking CMST 5814: Content Management Theory and Practice.
“He taught us skills that can relate to other fields,” said Billy Parvatam, a master’s student in communication. “It’s more practical. Other classes are typically theory-based, but his class was built around coding and building an effective website and online content. I can’t even think of another class that was anywhere close to his.”
Evia’s innovation in online content publishing helps unlock the key to some of the most complex problems. It’s this impact that is challenging the brightest minds at Virginia Tech.
“Carlos’ contributions have changed the way people think about digital communication,” said Robert E. Denton Jr., director of the School of Communication. “His areas of research truly have an impact across the globe. We’re extremely fortunate to have him sharing his insights with our students in the School of Communication.”
All of Evia’s research is in conjunction with Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries vision, which looks at the university’s future without constraints of today’s perspectives and perceived barriers. Lightweight DITA itself is focused on innovation in the future.
“Your content is future-proof because it’s not tied to a software complication,” Evia said. “Without this type of open standard, the content will be tied to an app and the day that the company goes out of business and the data version doesn’t exist anymore, it will die.
“Companies come and go, but if the content is there and is structured in plain text, in 50 years, somebody will open the file and go, ‘Oh, I know what this is.’ It’ll make sense and be connected to specific commercial or even nonprofit, open-source applications.”
In academic environments, Virginia Tech has been at the forefront of content management and content strategy. In his role with the Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies, Evia and colleagues are placing a premium on incubating programs that have the digital imprint.
Evia is helping to develop a possible major in professional communication that will take the traditional approach of seeing communication as a humanistic discipline into a digital perspective. Additionally, he is working with the Center for Humanities to create a minor that contains strong components of digital transformation and digital management.
It’s the road along which the communication field is heading. As a self-proclaimed DITA/Lightweight DITA peddler, it’s a road that Evia will continue traveling on, hoping to spread the good news of open standards far and wide.
“You’re going to be working with digital content later or sooner, so here we have it,” Evia said. “We have options for you to integrate the content that you’re creating or that you’re going to create into the workflows that will take advantage of what content developers have been doing for 20 years. You save money and you keep things consistent, which at the end of the day is what you want.”
Written by Cory Van Dyke