Oh, that's why SIF is important

It's almost 2010, after all. We should be able to handle some fairly straightforward database integration, shouldn't we?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

SIF, the Student Interoperability Framework, has been on my radar for a while now, but recent efforts by our state to both expand student data collection and begin integrating their student data warehouses with local student information systems have made it far harder to ignore.

SIF is a specification that, in principal, allows disparate systems with some common data elements to speak to each other and regularly exchange data. As far as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is concerned, that means that we'll be able to stop our tri-yearly exports and uploads of data and simply be able to keep our student information systems current. Then our education department will have near real-time access to data which can be more easily integrated with state assessment data. Now there's something useful, right? Classroom teachers being able to correlate grades and schedules easily through a web-based reporting tool with state data? Schools easily being able to pull down a variety of data for incoming transfer students? Sounds like good stuff, and, in fact it is, but we're a ways away from full implementation here in Mass.

That's called vertical integration in SIF-speak: getting larger, broader systems to communicate with local systems. Fair enough, but after a very long night getting our automated calling system ready for our first snow day today (and taking care of my one-month old, who is an even bigger night owl than her old man), I'm convinced that horizontal integration has much more immediate uses.

Here's the scenario. Secretaries at each school keep contacts up to date in our student information system. I export those data, massage them, tweak them, and otherwise check them, and then upload them to our auto-caller (OneCallNow). The whole baby thing, along with some other major projects, too many classes and offsite trainings, and a variety of other excuses meant that I hadn't done an upload recently. Since it was pretty clear that today was going to be a snow day, I figured I better hustle and get it done.

So I did. And I was all set to import the new, clean, verified data that I'd even cross-referenced with our budgeting system to ensure that I had every teacher when the superintendent called and said, "Yup, we're closing today - send out the message" (I'm paraphrasing, of course, but it was 4:45 in the morning, I hadn't slept yet, and I was trying to keep a gassy baby from hollering since my wife had passed out at 4:00). Just in time, right?

So I ran the built-in import wizard, got a success message from the system with the right number of records, and sent out the call. Time for bed...But wait! Not only did my one-month old have no intention of going to bed then, but the online message status that One Call Now provides showed the old number of phone calls, not the updated number. A bit of digging showed that a success message/email from the import wizard didn't actually correspond to real world success. A bunch of retirees just got a phone call telling them that they didn't need to come into school today. It's a good thing that our new teachers are a web-savvy bunch and would think to check our website for a school announcement since they didn't get the message. Suffice to say, One Call Now is looking into this for us.

While it's entirely true that I should have done this earlier, how many of us in the under-funded, under-staffed world of education IT get to be really proactive? Horizontal SIF integration is proactive for us. With proper setup (and SIF-compliant systems), our budget software could talk to the SIS (which also manages teacher and support staff information), and our SIS could talk to systems like One Call Now and point of sale systems for lunches. I'd much rather spend my time setting up a SIF infrastructure and then let the secretaries make their updates in the core system of the SIS than deal with the data concurrency nightmares of disconnected systems.

Our SIS is implementing SIF slowly but surely. It's time for me to start building a Zone Integration Server to leverage that functionality as soon as it comes online. And to start lobbying for One Call Now to become SIF-compliant, of course. I think the latter will happen soon, though, for a lot of these types of systems. It is almost 2010, after all. We should be able to handle some fairly straightforward database integration, shouldn't we?

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