Intelligent Content for Everyone

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Carlos Evia explains how everyone can have intelligent content and how LwDITA can help with that.

Airdate: September 30, 2020

Season 1 Episode 7 | 48 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:07.920] – Liz Fraley

Good morning everyone, and welcome to Room 42. I'm Liz Fraley here from Single-Soucing Solutions. I'm your moderator. This is Janice Summers, our interviewer. And welcome to today's guest. Carlos Evia, professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, where he is affiliated with the Center for Human-Computer Interaction Communicating Science and Humanities. During this 2020-2021 academic year, he's the faculty fellow at El Centro, the Hispanic and Latinx Cultural Community Center. His research and teaching work focuses on planning and developing technology-based content solutions for workplace communication problems, particularly in situations involving multicultural audiences or misrepresented communities.

[00:01:03.730] – Liz Fraley

He's the co-chair of the OASIS Lightweight DITA committee as well. Today he's here to help start answering the question. How can everyone have Intelligent Content and how can Lightweight DITA help with that? Welcome, Carlos.

[00:01:16.380] – Carlos Evia

Thank you very much.

[00:01:18.030] – Janice Summers

Hello, Carlos. We're so excited to have you today. And always such a pleasure to talk with you. You are extremely interesting and there's never a dull moment. And there's so many things that you have that you can share with us. But today, could you help explain to me what's Lightweight DITA?

[00:01:39.540] – Carlos Evia

Isn't that something interesting? Well, it's like Coke and Diet Coke? It is very hard to describe Diet Coke without describing Coke first. I'll tell you Diet Coke is a refreshing drink that has low calories.

[00:01:52.200] – Janice Summers


[00:01:53.070] – Carlos Evia

I can do that without going deep into what is Coke. But, you know, I will have to be, like, if I really want to give you a very good definition. I will have to tell you, oh and by the way, Coke is this soft drink that has been around for a very long time. And some people really enjoy it. But it turns out that if you drink it a lot, like if it were water ,it's not good for you and it gives you diabetes and heart problems and you die. And that's not fun.

[00:02:18.450] – Carlos Evia

So it's kind of like that, not to the extreme.

[00:02:21.100] – Janice Summers

Well not the death part

[00:02:21.970] – Carlos Evia

I can give you a very simple definition. Lightweight DITA is a methodology for structuring and publishing information. And that's super simple. But the longer explanation where we connect it to the parent products (not really products, it's a standard). Is like Lightweight DITA is a simplified… it's a simplified form of the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, which is a very popular and robust standard for structuring and publishing mainly, mostly technical information, but also many other forms of content.

[00:02:58.010] – Carlos Evia

And when DITA can be very helpful for many situations. It can also be detrimental for the health of some people who try to implement the full power of DITA into tiny, tiny little scale projects. And that, they're not going to give you diabetes and kill you. But it can make your project go “AAAA!” Because you're trying to use a very powerful, robust thing for a tiny, tiny content problem. And that's what we hope to solve with Lightweight DITA here. Take this light version that doesn't have all the things, all of the content, all the rules that come with DITA, but will give you some of the same results when it comes to a single-sourcing your content, to doing multichannel publishing, to doing content reuse and to keeping everything neatly contained and structured in places in which you're going to know where things are. And when you publish, you deliver something.

[00:03:49.500] – Carlos Evia

Your audience is not going to know what came from where. They are just going to see a very, you know, streamlined, coherent document in the PDF, in a website, in an EPUB, or whatever you want to give them. And they're going to be like, yeah, you solved my problem. Thank you. So that's the definition. I hope that made sense.

[00:04:09.190] – Janice Summers

All of the flavor of DITA, without all the calories.

[00:04:12.130] – Carlos Evia

Yes, something like that. You can use a slogan, you know…

[00:04:20.740] – Janice Summers

So, I mean, DITA is an architecture, there's a lot of rules…I don't even know how big the spec is. Like what, 300..

[00:04:29.840] – Carlos Evia

We're working right now on the spec for DITA 2.0, and I say we, even though I am tangentially in the spec editing group, it's mainly Kris Eberline and Robert Anderson. But I do some work because the Lightweight DITA spec is connected to the DITA 2.0 spec. So we edit some topics together and the, I don't know… We're talking about, what if you were to print it on a PDF will be a hundred pages probably? So there's a lot going on and nobody expects that, if you say I'm going to use DITA for my content problem, nobody expects that you're going to have to learn everything or use everything. Use what makes sense to your context. But you know, that can be intimidating for people who are new to content and have not worked with technical documentation and have not worked with XML. So when you see that DITA spec it's OK, well, you might be scared. And that's why we want to have Lightweight DITA as an easier, simpler approach.

[00:05:32.710] – Janice Summers

Because there's a lot of technical discipline that goes in a full DITA implementation. And that can be quite cumbersome if you're not in technical publications. Let's say you're just in professional communications, but you want to adopt the basic principles of DITA with some organization. So that's where you would apply Lightweight DITA?

[00:05:56.910] – Carlos Evia

Yes. And you get what I told you, you know. You have your topic based authoring. You can reuse content from–to the words, at word level, at the sentence level, at the paragraph level, and the whole topic level. You can customize it with variables for filtering, for different types of audiences, different types of platforms and many other things that you want to do. And then you can use DITA-friendly or DITA-aware tools so you can publish to different channels. And that would give you many different outputs that come from the same source.

[00:06:34.170] – Carlos Evia

And one of the things that we are adding in Lightweight DITA, that's one of the main selling points–even though we don't sell it, it's free–is that you can use XML, if you're happy with XML. You can also use HTML, if you're happy with HTML; or you can use Markdown, if the idea of having those angled brackets in XML or HTML scare you. So again, we're trying to make it more inclusive, more accessible for people who normally will not be, like you said, working in technical communication and really working with XML. So we present different options and possibilities that still give you similar results as if you were working in DITA environment.

[00:07:16.200] – Janice Summers

So that's very interesting because in DITA its all XML correct? Just XML. But in Lightweight DITA, XML, or HTML, or Markdown. So it allows for the flexibility for someone who can, you know, if they're comfortable with XML go ahead and use XML or they can adopt HTML. That's interesting. Now, how long have you been working on this? This standard? This architecture?

[00:07:43.390] – Carlos Evia

My co-chair in the Lightweight DITA subcommittee is a dude named Michael Priestley, who you might know if you use DITA cause he invented the thing. And Michael and Don Day, who also was on the team that invented DITA, started drafting the idea of a simplified version of DITA in 2013. And I kind of got involved with them around 2014. And we have been through many different versions and iterations. At one point we had even more languages that we wanted to bring in.

[00:08:23.310] – Carlos Evia

We were working on mapping DITA structures to something that was compatible with Microsoft Word or with JSON and AsciiDoc. And at one point we were like, OK, if we really want to deliver something that we guarantee that works and you can use content from one to the other to the other and all the way around, we decided to concentrate on those three flavors. Have X-DITA that is based on the XML, H-DITA in HTML, and M-DITA in Markdown. Of course, there are commercial tools available that allow you to bring in JSON, Word and other things.

[00:09:05.810] – Carlos Evia

And as part of the committee with OASIS. We don't really endorse those because, you know, we don't sell things. But we appreciate that the vendors that create and develop other approaches that allow me to bring even more input sources, so I'm happy if people…

[00:09:23.270] – Janice Summers

You want to be agnostic to tools, but you want to let them in so they know how they can accommodate for the standard. I mean, I think that's kind of important to give them all that equal playing field.

[00:09:35.560] – Carlos Evia

I agree. And I'm happy when I hear that a company, or a developer has support for Lightweight DITA and that they expanded it and now they allow you to use JSON or something different. That's OK. It's not part of the standard. Maybe one day when we create version 2.0 of Lightweight DITA, if there's enough interest and support, we might make a formal standard that brings DITA structures to JSON or other languages. But the majority of requests, because, you know, this is not something that we sat down and we were like, yeah, let's just do it by talking to people, by going to conferences.

[00:10:14.440] – Carlos Evia

And the DITA Adoption Committee held working groups and focus groups with people all over the country. And they asked them, what are the approaches and languages, syntaxes that you want to see and become compatible with DITA topics and DITA environments and DITA repositories. And those were the three ones. We want a simplified version of DITA XML. We want one that is based on the HTML and we want one that is based on Markdown. And that's because many developers were using or are still using Markdown for writing release notes and all sorts of technical content, including some form of API documentation that is still coming in Markdown.

[00:10:57.180] – Carlos Evia

So we, that's what we wanted to do. We wanted to give people who already had content, or were developing content in Markdown, the possibility of bringing their content and make it compatible with DITA structures and DITA environments.

[00:11:12.950] – Liz Fraley

So almost defining the pathway.

[00:11:17.390] – Carlos Evia

Yep, and we don't say you have to use all of these three flavors in your pathway to be using Lightweight DITA. You can be only using M-DITA and hey, you're using Lightweight DITA. Or you can only be using X-DITA and yeah, you're using Lightweight DITA. But you can use them all in exchange, interchange content. From this to this into that, and there's already people using that in many different industries. And they told me last week of the ConVEx conference it was very interesting to hear from people that I have never met.

[00:11:53.190] – Carlos Evia

And they were like, yeah, we are using Lightweight DITA, and I'm, like, OK, cool. You know, again, we don't make money out of it. It's an open standard. So power to the people. If it works for you, if it makes you happy, I'm happy because I'm accomplishing that goal of making DITA more accessible and to a degree more inclusive by bringing people who normally will not be using the standard to embrace some of the principles of the standard and the capabilities of the DITA standard.

[00:12:24.110] – Liz Fraley

Interesting, it makes for tough spec work though.

[00:12:29.010] – Carlos Evia

Oh, my gosh, if you only knew. Do you know Alan Houser?

[00:12:33.180] – Liz Fraley

I do

[00:12:33.820] – Carlos Evia

Former President of the Society for Technical Communication, Alan is a very good friend. Don't ask him about the process of writing the Lightweight DITA spec because he's going to say mean things about it.

[00:12:47.990] – Carlos Evia

But I think… I have an enormous amount of respect for Kris Eberline, who is the chair of the DITA technical committee. I consider her a very close friend and she has done an amazing, an amazing job of hours, unpaid hours, (because nobody pays her for this) to really make the connection from the DITA 2.0 topics to the Lightweight DITA topics that are going to be feeding both specs. All I have to do is go in there and write a couple of things, because the structure that she has created is impressive and its…

[00:13:26.080] – Carlos Evia

Probably, Kris Eberline is the only person who understands how it works, the kind that can go in there and see what's going on, but without her, I would be nothing. She's the brains of the operation when it comes to anything DITA related.

[00:13:40.670] – Carlos Evia

She does work a lot and work really hard on it. That is a fact. But, yeah, you know, it was funny. You say it's 800 pages. Last time I read the S1000D spec, its close to 3,000. And you know, spec work is not easy. It's a tough thing to figure out how far to go and where to go and when to diverge and separate and when not to. It's not.. That's not an easy job and more power to you all for participating and doing it.

[00:14:13.690] – Carlos Evia

Yeah, it's and you know, the reward in this case, it's not money, the reward is not fame because how many people who use DITA know who Kris Eberline is? I mean,

[00:14:24.950] – Liz Fraley

I think everyone

[00:14:25.780] – Carlos Evia

I mean, so the reward is when you hear that somebody is using it, the reward is when you see a manual and you can tell that came from DITA, that looks like a PDF from the OT

[00:14:40.090] – Carlos Evia

So that's the reward when you hear that. We're helping people. And of course, some people make money out of it. Let's be honest, the consultants, vendors do make money out of it. But the spec work is not intended as a commercial product. So there's no money behind it.

[00:15:01.700] – Janice Summers

I wonder how many hours, because this is quite daunting. You have to go through, tell us how do you go about beginning even documenting the spec? How does that all work?

[00:15:15.220] – Carlos Evia

In the case of Lightweight DITA, we started with OASIS, which is our home for the standard. The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards. We started with a product that they call the Committee Note. And the Committee Note is like a white paper that starts by defining what Lightweight DITA is, what are the flavors. They also inform us that we're going to have Lightweight DITA. What elements and structures from DITA are we bringing to Lightweight DITA and how to represent those in the different authoring formats of Lightweight DITA examples. And then a table that lists all the possible attributes that the elements can have. And that was the genesis for the spec.

[00:16:05.880] – Janice Summers


[00:16:06.000] – Carlos Evia

And that baby with all the hoops that you have to go through to get approval at the subcommittee level, at the committee level, because it's open work has to be opened up for review to the general public. I think that baby was about a year, you know. Writing, revising, publishing, reviewing, and waiting for people to give feedback, incorporating feedback in the…

[00:16:32.370] – Carlos Evia

Kris and Robert Anderson from Oracle have been working on the 2.0 spec as their main editors for more than a year or two, and I've been working on Lightweight DITA spec for more than a year or two. So that's a beefy one and JoAnn Hackos has a very good article that was published in the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication a few years ago that talks about the process of creating specs. And it's intense and, to a degree, it's supposed to be slow on purpose. So people have a chance to contribute and people have a chance to review. We can try it. We can test it before we say, “this is it!” Let's have the rules! You better use them!

[00:17:18.320] – Janice Summers

What kind of surprises did you run into when you were working on this project?

[00:17:25.710] – Carlos Evia

Well, people already had their implementations because, I mean, if you're a developer or even if you're just a user of DITA and you know how to specialize things, you can just go ahead and create your own simplified version of Lightweight DITA. So when we released the initial draft, a couple of users came out and said, I already have something like that. So by making it part of the spec, you're breaking my own little implementation.

[00:17:58.180] – Carlos Evia

And I was like, So what do you say? You're like, no, this is the official version that you're going to like it. We had to be like, oh, yes, and see what they have. Be sure that it's compatible with what they have and then make a new version. And that has happened with… And right now it's happening with IBM. IBM, the big mommy of DITA, has also been in a related, not necessarily completely parallel, but sometimes intersecting parts of the developing of M-DITA

[00:18:35.700] – Carlos Evia

That's the Markdown-based version of Lightweight DITA. It all started from the same place where Michael Priestley was very involved in the development of M-DITA. But then Michael went into marketing at IBM and the development of M-DITA went in a different path. And Jennifer Schlotfeldt is the one who is leading that. And she's an awesome person and she's Mexican-American by the way, the last name will not tell you that. But Mexican Americans rule the world. That's another story. So Jennifer is now part of the Lightweight DITA subcommittee, and we are looking at what she and her team developed for IBM that smells like M-DITA, but is not necessarily M-DITA.

[00:19:18.770] – Carlos Evia

So we have to say, OK, you already have this in production. And if we release M-DITA as a standard it does not take on the consideration of the work that you have done, you're not going to be compatible. So we have to take a look at what they have done and implement it into the draft of the M-DITA standard. So now they are again intersecting. They started from the same place, but they were in different paths of evolution and now we're bringing it back together.

[00:19:46.890] – Carlos Evia

So that has happened quite frequently that we say, yeah, let's do this. And somebody comes out and says, we already have that and we put it in, you know, in production, and if you make this the official version, what we have is going to become obsolete. And again, we want to be inclusive. We want to make this accessible for people. So we're like good, share. We take a look at it. And then if we can, we incorporate it and we revise it and we try to negotiate with some people. And be like, yeah, this approach is simpler and you don't need a bunch of configuration in your code. And that's the .. I would say that's the main surprise that we have encountered.

[00:20:28.150] – Janice Summers

And it's important. And that's one of the nice things when you include others that the universe will find a way. Give somebody a standard.

[00:20:36.970] – Janice Summers


[00:20:37.330] – Janice Summers

Yeah, like, OK, I'm going to comply, but I can find it a little different way to tweak things here and still be compliant. So by sending that out, you found that there are people out there, free-range, already doing their own version. Right? So it's … when you call out to people and they respond, this is the key thing.

[00:20:58.620] – Janice Summers

People need to interact and respond and share candidly what they're doing. So that can be. Ohh, OK. That's you know, a thought-starter for you, or maybe it shifted your thinking. Was there anything that somebody did that like, totally like switched you guys to kinda say oh, like that's pretty revolutionary. How can we infuse that into what we are doing.

[00:21:26.660] – Carlos Evia

Yes, Garen Torikian. Garen Torikian was Content Strategist/Developer at GitHub. He doesn't work for GitHub anymore. He is in New York. He has his own firm. Garen started, he invented a system that will do… If you're familiar with DITA, you might know the conref, the content reference. The conref is a reuse mechanism in DITA that allows you to call phrases, paragraphs, or words from another topic. And you don't have to type it again. You don't have to copy and paste it. When you build, when you transform your DITA repository, it will magically populate any things that call a content reference.

[00:22:13.960] – Carlos Evia

So when GitHub was building its approach on how they were going to do their documentation, Markdown-based documentation. Garen Torikian was part of the team that created it, as a tribute to DITA, saying we're not using DITA, but we'd like DITA. So we're inventing, oh DITA people, this tribute to you. The conref in Markdown and the conref in GitHub Markdown is with a liquid variable and the double squiggly that fetches content from a data file.

[00:22:47.130] – Carlos Evia

And that's awesome. But that was not part of any standard because at the time there was no M-DITA, there's no Markdown standard. So Garen is an awesome guy. He's not a member of the subcommittee, he's not a member of OASIS. But I will email him and I will Skype. That's before we had so many things. In-person approaches to him. So how about we do this? How about we do that? And he will always give me his feedback and input.

[00:23:17.690] – Carlos Evia

And I think that made M-DITA stronger and that made M-DITA more compatible with the structures of DITA because in its original version M-DITA was only going to be very presentational. That's just a Markdown file, a couple of Headings. Heading 1, Heading 2, no Heading 3, list items and paragraphs and there's a picture. Goodbye. But because of that kind of involvement, now it's more robust, single-source friendly, reuse friendly proposed standard that solves problems for people who really need to have topic-based single-sourcing friendly, reuse friendly, intelligent content. So that kind of collaboration with people in the community who are not even members of the body, that creates the standard.

[00:24:13.130] – Janice Summers

And I think that's an important thing that you mentioned, is that you reach not just the usual suspects, those are the committee members, but reaching outside of the committee because the community is quite large and significant. So it's good to operate outside of your immediate circle. Because including from outside, look what you gain. It's tremendous.

[00:24:40.380] – Carlos Evia

Yeah, and when we had a draft of the Committee Note, I will email people that we're not members of OASIS and be like, “Hi, we develop this thingy, you want to take a look at it and give us a feedback?” But some of them say yes and some are like, I'm too busy, but thank you for thinking about me. But, you know, that's how we got input that we would not have considered because we live in our own little worlds and we work in our own stacks of environments. And we don't have a use case for what somebody is going to be thinking about. No, you have to have these features because I need it. Ok

[00:25:18.130] – Janice Summers

You must! You must !

[00:25:26.270] – Liz Fraley

So if someone has a share, they'd like to make sure they reach out to you.

[00:25:32.220] – Carlos Evia


[00:25:32.430] – Carlos Evia

Why not? Now something that I have to tell you. We have to do the proverbial drawing a line on the sand. That we have. We're pretty much done adding features like we did at 1.0. The last one that we have is Jennifer from IBM is working on a draft of M-DITA map to aggregate topics. And that's the last thing that we're going to include as a feature in Lightweight DITA 1.0. So everything that happens after that is going to be under consideration for a new version of Lightweight DITA you know, because there's always a 2.0.

[00:26:14.770] – Janice Summers

Yeah. Always something, there's always something. So it's like, OK, so, I mean, they shouldn't.. you don't want to turn off the spigot, but it's like, OK, look, we're not going to implement in 1.0 because at some point we gotta get that released.

[00:26:30.800] – Carlos Evia

And I think the DITA 2.0 spec is at the same point to crease, you know, how to draw the line. I tell people no more features. If we continue implementing that, the spec is not going to be ready like ever. Yeah.

[00:26:46.260] – Janice Summers

Cause the review process is quite arduous. And you know, if you go and change something that has to go through review again.

[00:26:55.780] – Carlos Evia

And not just internal, but external. Everything that we do is open. It has to be sent out to the public to get feedback. And, you know, that can take months.

[00:27:07.850] – Janice Summers

Right, so you just start targeting for version 1.x.

[00:27:14.750] – Liz Fraley

You heard him send him your shares, tell him how you're using DITA.

[00:27:22.400] – Liz Fraley

Awesome. So just cause I am unclear myself, is it a separate spec? Not part of, like it's… They have diverged, different names, faces, different specifications?

[00:27:35.760] – Carlos Evia

There are different specifications that come from the same document. Here's a bigger picture for DITA 2.0, the base spec that has the topic, and the map is going to be a document. And then language DITA is going to be its own document that takes some of the content on the base, but also adds its own stuff. And then the DITA 2.0 technical content that most people think is DITA–concept, task, reference, glossary and troubleshooting–is going to be another document. Sharing content, reusing content.

[00:28:19.100] – Carlos Evia

You know, if you're working in that business you have to use it, you know, from the DITA base spec. So they are related and they reuse many of the content, but they are separate documents and there's going to be a timeline of publication. I think the goal is to have the DITA 2.0 spec come out first. And then the lightweight DITA spec and then technical content. But I'm supposed to be working on that calendar with Kris Eberline, so if you see her, don't tell her that you know, only because its not official.

[00:28:53.870] – Liz Fraley

Its our secret

[00:28:55.440] – Janice Summers

Nobody say anything.

[00:28:56.830] – Liz Fraley

That's great. All right, awesome. Also in the other half of the bio is you're doing work with the Hispanic LatinX Community Center and you're working with multicultural audiences and misrepresented communities. How does this all fit in with that?

[00:29:17.540] – Carlos Evia

Well, it fits in quite well, let me tell you. Because the genesis of my involvement, the origin of my involvement with DITA came from a project that I was working on many, many years ago. I came here, this is my 17th year at Virginia Tech. So I came here. Yeah. And I was in my office and I was about to leave my office and go to lunch when my office phone rang. And I'm like, should I take the call?Should I go to lunch? What you wanna do? So I took the call and there was a police officer from the Virginia Tech police saying, we got your name from the International Center at Virginia Tech because they said that you could translate something. OK? So I'm here on the highway with these two construction workers who are in pretty bad shape that they have been attacked and they don't speak English. So I wonder if you can help us translate what their problem is.

[00:30:22.500] – Carlos Evia

And through the police officers radio, I translated and I found out that the workers were Central American and they have been working for a construction company that came from Florida and had different stops in North Carolina and in Virginia in a very informal business structure. They will get on a trailer and they will leave in the trailer. And during the day they will go and work. And at the end of the week, somebody will give them cash and then get them on the trailer again so they can go to the next construction site .

[00:31:00.500] – Carlos Evia

For that specific date, the person who was supposed to pay them didn't have the money when they asked for the money. The other guy who was drunk beat them with a baseball bat and ran away and left them. And this was the crew that had been traveling with them from Florida. So they didn't know where to go. And of course, they didn't have papers and one of them had broken ribs and I think a broken arm. This was 16 years ago or something like that.

[00:31:30.560] – Carlos Evia

So I translated, the information and the police officer took over, and that kept me thinking, this is a communication problem. Because these are construction workers they don't understand their rights. They don't understand what are the safety standards that they should be using in the workplace. So what can I do to improve the situation. So that became like a big agenda item in my research.

[00:32:02.740] – Carlos Evia

And I started asking around and I found out that Virginia Tech at that point had a center for research in Construction, Safety, and Health, which was created with a grant from the NIH. And I went to see that then director of the center, Brian Kleiner. And I just introduced myself. And hi, I'm a new assistant professor in English and I kind of want to do work that improves the workplace communication of Latino construction workers. And they gave me a couple of grants to get my work started. And I was looking at.. I want to have this repository of information that could be easy to translate, easy to adapt, easy to modify for people who cannot read in English, and also people who cannot read a lot, even in Spanish and have pictures attached to every step and have a contextual help and things that will come out.

[00:33:05.410] – Carlos Evia

So that's why I started using DITA in my projects. I knew that DITA existed when I was a grad student at Texas Tech, you know, Joyce Locke Carter was one of my professors in one of our classes we talk about single sourcing and DITA. So I knew that XML was a thing and DITA was a thing, but I had never really used it for my purposes. And that's where I started working on projects that were related to DITA and also related to, you know, my research interests.

[00:33:35.320] – Carlos Evia

And let's be very honest, my identity as a Mexican-American researcher because I was like, I should be doing something to help these guys. So that's how I got involved with DITA. And that took me on the complicated path of… There's another thing that we can do to make DITA more accessible and embrace more diverse authors. Which is don't expect that everybody is going to be using XML and the DITA open toolkit in the command line. Because if you think that everybody is a dude, because it's a dude who's going to be doing their XML in notepad++ and then going to the terminal to transform, that does not make the profession, that does not make the field more diverse.

[00:34:25.120] – Carlos Evia

So we have to present alternatives to that to make it more inclusive. So there's a connecting thread that starts with construction workers and ends with Lightweight DITA, but you know, if you open my brain and see where things are connecting and clicking to me, it's part of that that connection of trying to make technical communication and technical communications, the actual products more accessible and more inclusive and more diverse. That's… I think that's the driving engine.

[00:34:59.310] – Liz Fraley

Amazing story.

[00:35:01.770] – Janice Summers

That is an amazing story and it's interesting how that's a connective thread. I mean, that's like a thing that repeats for you over and over again it what you live and breathe. So and we're all lucky that you put that to your life's work because we benefit from it.

[00:35:19.350] – Carlos Evia

Oh, Thank you. I hope you like Lightweight DITA.

[00:35:25.570] – Janice Summers

Well, I love DITA, I'm sure I'm going to love Lightweight DITA too.

[00:35:30.790] – Liz Fraley

She likes it even when she's not using the markup.

[00:35:36.840] – Janice Summers

I love anything that makes communication easier and breaks down barriers right. And that's really what it's all about. In all aspects of your work, your life's work is breaking down those barriers so that we can communicate better and it crosses boundaries, which is really important. You're not just talking to technical communicators, you're talking to anyone who writes professional communication of any kind. And there's a lot of them out there. Right?

[00:36:06.350] – Carlos Evia

And what I want to emphasize is that it's not just me of course. There's the team and Michael Priestley who was the original brain behind let's do a cross, an approach to structuring and publishing, content DITA-like environment that crosses silos, that if you leave in this community that only uses XML when you interact with somebody who doesn't use XML, you either cry or you try to evangelize them and be like XML will save your soul. But, No. They're going to present an alternative and hope that people can collaborate and exchange information.

[00:36:46.550] – Carlos Evia

So there's a group of people who quite religiously come to the Lightweight DITA subcommittee meetings and give their opinion and give their feedback, give their input and they just get it going on.

[00:36:59.630] – Janice Summers

Yeah, a standard isn't built by one person alone. No way.

[00:37:03.670] – Liz Fraley

It wouldn't be usable.

[00:37:06.250] – Carlos Evia

Kris Eberline does most of the work by herself, but even so there's input from the community of course

[00:37:13.060] – Janice Summers

There's a team behind it. There's always a team behind it. Yeah. I like that cross over for your work and your body of work. Right, from helping non-native English speakers, right? So that connects.

[00:37:33.840] – Carlos Evia

That connects in my brain it connects, and even it connects in my teaching not just in my research and my publications, but in the things that I teach, that sometimes it might look like the things that I teach are very disconnected from one another. For example, I teach… This semester, I'm teaching a course on diversity, equity and inclusion in the media and how representations of… misrepresent the community in the media, have impacts in society and in real life. And I'm also teaching a senior graduate seminar on content operations. And in my mind, they are kind of related because, you know, again, about making things inclusive and accessible to different audiences. And that's how things process.

[00:38:29.830] – Janice Summers

But I mean, that's the magic, right? Earlier you mentioned the word statistics, and that's something that usually sends chills down people's spine. But… and it's funny because I thought back to my college days and I, honestly, I'll tell you truthfully, I had to take stats more than once. And I had stats from one person who is very rigid in one way. And then I had stats from somebody who taught ballroom dancing. And his ability to apply something that felt a little unapproachable to something that was every day was phenomenal.

[00:39:07.000] – Janice Summers

So the way that your mind works and that connective neural pathways that you create is so unique and so wonderful. And that's what brings all of these things together. And that's what's infused in the work that you do. So that's what I meant. And it makes it approachable and interesting. That's why I always think you're so interesting to talk to. Cause you mind works….

[00:39:33.680] – Liz Fraley

We didn't even know the construction story. I mean, yeah, we're already fascinated.

[00:39:38.590] – Carlos Evia

Thank you.

[00:39:39.680] – Liz Fraley

So but that's how breakthroughs happen, right? When things connect across places where you never would have guessed.

[00:39:47.800] – Carlos Evia

Yeah, you come to the job with your research agenda and you're like I'm going to be writing this. And then suddenly you're like, no, I'm going to go in this very different direction because there's a need. There's, you know, what… or what the researchers say, there's an exigence. There's this problem that I need to tackle and I need to tackle it now because it's a hot topic. And I think I have something that, you know, can help. Even if it's not going to solve the problem for everybody. At least it can set a precedent that people can take a look at and try to replicate and see how it works, yeah.

[00:40:23.340] – Liz Fraley

Absolutely. We were booking our next speaker and she's doing things in an arena that is not known for people like her. So it's… I… Part of the fun of all of this is I get to see all that. So but you said something. What did you think you were going to do? You said, “you come into your job thinking you're going to do this and then something happens and you find something new.” What'd you think you were going to do?

[00:40:54.140] – Carlos Evia

There were two things that I had. And we go back to 17 years ago when I came here to Virginia Tech, I had a book contract under my arm for a little collection on outsourcing technical communication that I co-edited with Barry Thatcher. And that book was published. You know, it took a couple of years to get all the chapters done because I got involved with the construction workers project and I couldn't put in the effort that I was expecting that I was going to put into the outsourcing book.

[00:41:24.700] – Carlos Evia

But that was my main project. And there was another project that, funny enough, was like my own implementation of single sourcing that I was looking at with a SQL database and PHP for the code of… Let's create this tool that will allow people to start the content of database. It's like a homemade version of WordPress for technical documentation that I abandoned because, of course, I discovered that was this whole other world of XML that was doing that with Flat File database that did not require the relational database of SQL

[00:42:05.370] – Carlos Evia

But that's what I wanted to do. When I when I graduated from my Ph.D., I wanted to create my own tool for reusing content. And I wanted to explore the whole idea of outsourcing technical communication. Which we did because we worked for a couple of years on the book and the book was published in 2009, something like that. That's when the outsourcing and technical communication book was published by Penguin.

[00:42:34.140] – Liz Fraley


[00:42:35.790] – Janice Summers

Hey, I have a question because we're almost out of time.

[00:42:37.750] – Liz Fraley

I've got a question from the audience.

[00:42:39.530] – Janice Summers

Yeah, I got a question for you. So let's say somebody is already in DITA, or core DITA, and they want to move over into Lightweight DITA… So, anything we need to know?

[00:42:52.130] – Carlos Evia

Here's the question: Why? If DITA is working for you and if you are in an industry that really requires the structure that DITA is giving you, I do not expect that you're going to abandon DITA and go to Lightweight DITA because Lightweight DITA cannot do everything that DITA does. So if you are already on DITA and DITA makes you happy, then don't switch. But if you want to…

[00:43:21.780] – Janice Summers

What if there's like a Markdown project. .

[00:43:23.890] – Carlos Evia

OK, yeah. Well, then if you want to start incorporating additional sources of input, all that you have to do is, number one, find out with your I.T. person what are the… what tools are you using to process your DITA? Because the DITA open toolkit has had support for Lightweight DITA for more than a year. But you have to be sure that your I.T. people are using a version of the OT that supports Lightweight DITA, otherwise, it ain't going to work.

[00:43:58.610] – Carlos Evia

So all that you have to do. You can start by reading our Committee Note, at least you said you were going to paste the Committee Notes on the notes. So people can take a look at that and see how we map structures and elements from DITA into the different authoring formats of Lightweight DITA. And create your topic in Markdown, just going to be a file in Markdown, that is written in a DITA-like environment. Now, it's not going to have the schema or DTD in XML that's going to slap you in the wrist when you put a paragraph inside a paragraph.

[00:44:35.200] – Carlos Evia

So that's why you have to use your skills as a writer and an editor to create your own file. And then what you're going to do, you're going to incorporate that Markdown, treating it like a regular topic in your maps. If you have a DITA map that has… aggregates a collection of DITA topics, just add that one and be sure to give it the attribute of format equals M-DITA. So when you process, your tool, your stack knows that you're incorporating Markdown or M-DITA file into your mix.

[00:45:11.370] – Carlos Evia

And if you're using, if you're I.T., people are using the right version of the OT, the magic should happen. And again, that's the beauty of it. It's seamless. And to the end-user. The end-users don't know what came from where. They just get a single document that is coherent and consistent. So the starting point is read the Committee Note. If you want more Lightweight DITA, you can buy a book about Lightweight DITA that somebody wrote. I'm not going to peddle his book because we're not supposed to make money out of it, but I wrote it.

[00:45:47.330] – Carlos Evia

So you can go Google the Lightweight DITA book and you can just start looking at that. But if you don't want to buy my book, you know, maybe you can send me a nice message and, I don't mind, I might send you a sample of it or even Larry Kollar wrote his own free little version of how to do Lightweight DITA. So it's out there. He's worked very hard and he's been a supporter of Lightweight DITA

[00:46:15.860] – Carlos Evia

So I give him my respect. And he has his own little open source book on Lightweight DITA that will get you started too. So there are many approaches that you can take, but talk to your I.T. people to be sure that there is support for Lightweight DITA in the environment, in the stack that you're using.

[00:46:38.010] – Janice Summers

All right, thank you. So we're a little over time, sorry. But I just really want to thank you, Carlos, for coming in and talking with us today. It has been such a delight having you here, and I hope you'll come back one day. And again, thank you so much for donating your time.

[00:46:57.070] – Carlos Evia

Thank you very much for inviting me

[00:46:58.720] – Liz Fraley

It was great talking to you. Thank you for coming.

[00:47:01.960] – Carlos Evia

Thank you

[00:47:02.930] – Liz Fraley

Thank you for sharing all, everything about yourself. We appreciate that.

[00:47:07.780] – Janice Summers

So we've got all of your contact information and all the points of interest for people. It's in the show notes. And I know Liz has put it also in the comments section here for people to connect with you. We strongly encourage people to connect with Carlos, as you can tell, he is very easy to talk to, very approachable. Send your examples of what you're doing right now in DITA and Lightweight DITA.

[00:47:34.680] – Liz Fraley

He loves it.

[00:47:35.860] – Janice Summers

There's no any changes it's not going to happen then expect one battle.

[00:47:43.000] – Liz Fraley

Awesome great. All right. Thank you, Carlos.

[00:47:46.390] – Carlos Evia

Thank you.

[00:47:47.150] – Liz Fraley

So again next time.

[00:47:48.270] – Janice Summers

Thank you everybody. Bye.

In this episode

Carlos Evia is Professor of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, where he is affiliated with the Centers for Human-Computer Interaction, Communicating Science, and Humanities. During the 2020-2021 academic year, he is the faculty fellow at El Centro – Hispanic and Latinx Cultural and Community Center. His research and teaching work focuses on planning and developing technology-based content solutions for workplace communication problems, particularly in situations involving multicultural audiences or misrepresented communities. Those technology-based solutions frequently include content structured in a workflow following the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA). Carlos is also co-chair (with Michael Priestley, from IBM) of the Lightweight DITA subcommittee with the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.

Intelligent content has been defined as content “designed to be modular, structured, reusable, format free, and semantically rich and, as a consequence, discoverable, reconfigurable, and adaptable” (Rockley et al., 2015, p. 1). Over the years, many technical communicators (and their managers and CFOs) have seen benefits of intelligent content, which include single sourcing, content reuse, and multichannel publishing. However, the evolution of intelligent content takes place on a slightly rocky path. Even in practitioner circles, there is pushback and criticism against some of the tools and standards that technical communicators use to produce and publish intelligent content.

Lightweight DITA (LwDITA) is a proposed approach for simplifying workflows behind the production of intelligent content. LwDITA is an evolution of the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), which is a widely used standard for producing intelligent content in technical communication. One of the goals of LwDITA is to take the benefits of intelligent content beyond the field of technical communication and into professional communities that create and publish information for multiple delivery channels and audiences.



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Lightweight DITA subcommittee with OASIS:

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