Eric Explains: XML


It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we at Sunlight want as much government information online as possible.   But when it comes to exactly how this information should be put online, the specifics can be just as important. Many agencies do in fact publish their information and reports online, but what is also important, especially over at Sunlight Labs, is having that data in open, computer-friendly formats.

However, it can be difficult to explain to a non-technical audience why PDF just isn’t good enough, or even inappropriate (have you ever opened a PDF of a table of numbers and wished they’d sent you a spreadsheet instead?). Often, what we want is XML.

  • Never heard of XML?
  • Don’t understand it?
  • Hate tech acronyms?

Well, then you’re who we made this video for.

Here, we have Eric Mill, one of our Labs developers, explain what XML is and why your organization can benefit, like ours has, from publishing your data in XML.

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  • Jay

    XML is not perfect, but at least it is reasonably standardized way to transfer information.

    Most computer languages have libraries that will convert xml to JSON or just about any format desired for conumption, on the fly.

  • Eric Schultz


    Not a bad description, its hard to explain something technical like that to people who aren’t technical.

    The big advantage XML has over CSV is that it illustrates hierarchy. In addition, the fact that the tools are pretty standardized is really nice.

  • Speaking as a developer who has had to deal with monstrous XML files, I understand, and honestly, in many cases I’d prefer something more lightweight, like JSON, or even CSV. But XML is a more common standard, and a good first step for many organizations, as they make the mental transition from “document provider” to “data provider”.

  • John Perry

    Spoken like someone who’s never had to deal with the Federal Procurement Data System XML files.