What is the Schools Interoperability Framework Association (SIFA)?

SIFA is a nonprofit organization that brings together vendors, government agencies, state departments of education, and other industry leaders to develop a specification that ensures that primary and secondary (K-12) instructional and administrative software applications can share information seamlessly. SIF is not a product, but rather an industry-supported technical blueprint for K-12 software that will enable diverse applications to interact and share data now and in the future.

Who is involved in the SIFA initiative? SIFA is comprised of vendors, schools, state departments of education, the U.S. Department of Education, various education associations, and other agencies. For a complete list of members as of press time, see page 21A of this report.

What is the SIF specification?

The SIF specification is a set of documents developed by SIFA work groups, committees, and task forces comprised primarily of software engineers from educational software companies. These documents articulate a set of common definitions for school data and a set of rules for how these data can be shared. The common data definitions are called data objects. Data objects cover many items that are involved in schools. For example, a student’s name, address, and phone number are part of the “StudentPersonal” data object. Having different software programs understand this common definition of a student makes it possible for them to share this information properly. There are 89 data objects currently defined. Additional data objects will be defined as the specification matures.

In addition to the data objects themselves, the SIF specification also defines the rules for how software programs can send these data objects to each other. This set of rules is called the “infrastructure” and uses ways of sending messages that are built on the types of technology utilized by the internet. By using open and commonly available means to transport these data objects, SIF ensures that all vendors will be able to use the SIF framework and that all school systems will be able to implement it regardless of what kinds of computers or networks they have. Ensuring that SIFA is vendor-neutral and platform-independent is an important guiding principal of SIFA and a foundation for the long-term viability of the SIF specification.

How will schools benefit from SIF?

The goal of SIF is to help educators maximize their instructional and administrative software investments and make more efficient use of staff and faculty time. Educators constantly lament that their financial management, administration, library, transportation routing, and cafeteria applications do not work together. SIF aims to solve these problems. By using SIF-certified applications, schools can dramatically reduce redundant data entry and spend more time on teaching.

On what language is the SIF specification based?

The SIF specification is based on the W3C-endorsed standard Extensible Markup Language (XML). It defines common data formats and high-level rules of interaction and architecture, but it is not linked to a particular operating system or platform. SIFA encourages the development of additional implementation guides for other software architectures as long as they conform to the specification.

There have been many initiatives and collaborations formed in the past to address technical issues and interoperability standards in education–for example, SPEEDE/ExPRESS.

Why is there a need for yet another one?

SIFA is responding to the needs of educators who continue to grapple with interoperability issues. For example, educators need to produce reports using data from multiple applications and deliver those reports over the internet securely. These are the kinds of issues that SIFA aims to address. Whenever possible, SIFA will use the SPEEDE/ExPRESS specifications without reinventing definitions of common attributes like codes for gender, ethnicity, and grades.

How can educators ensure that the software they buy has been developed according to the SIF specification?

SIFA has established a certification program that provides third-party validation for all products developed using the SIF specification. Each product that is SIF-certified uses a SIFA Certification logo. To find out more about the SIFA Certification program, visit the Open Group web site (http://www.opengroup.org/sif/cert). For a complete list of SIF-certified applications, visit http://www.opengroup.org/sif/cert/ cert_prodlist.tpl.

In addition, SIFA has prepared suggested Request for Proposals (RFP) language for schools and districts to use when purchasing software to ensure that they receive SIF-certified applications and are working with SIFA vendor members. To download this sample RFP language, go to http://www.sifinfo.org/sifcertification.asp#5.

What are the SIFA Work Groups?

There are two types of SIFA work groups: technical and support. The technical work groups are designated by school function. They include data warehousing, food services, gradebook, HR/finance, information management, infrastructure, library automation, student information services, and transportation. The support task force and committees are designed to assist the groups served by SIFA. These include certification testing, implementation, and marketing.

How can vendors join SIFA?

Vendors may join the association by filling out a secure online application (http://www.sifinfo.org/vendor-get-started.asp). SIFA members must sign an agreement that encourages them to participate in working groups, task forces, meetings, and conference calls. They also must pay a sliding-scale membership fee that is based on yearly revenues. This fee starts at $4,000 for companies with gross annual revenues of less than $5 million and ranges up to $27,000 for vendors with gross annual revenues of $1 billion or more.

How can schools or districts get involved?

There are three ways for schools to become involved with SIF: (1) Join SIFA and sit on work groups. Then, influence and vote on SIF specifications as they are being developed. (2) Require SIF-certified products in your RFPs and buying processes. (3) Stay abreast of which companies are developing products to be SIF-certified.

There are two levels of school or district membership in SIFA, and school leaders may choose either one when joining the association (http://www.sifinfo.org/ school-get-started.asp). Voting membership entitles you to have a voice and vote on the SIF specification, members of the SIFA Board of Directors, Technical Board at-large positions, and other issues concerning the association. Non-voting members enjoy all of the privileges of members (including serving on work groups, committees, and task forces), but they cannot vote. The membership fee is $1,000 for voting members and $500 for non-voting members.

What are the benefits of SIFA membership?

  1. A voice and a vote in the association.
  2. Access to resources available exclusively on the SIFA Community of Practice web site.
  3. Influence on the future development of SIF specifications.
  4. Support for implementing SIF in your district or state.
  5. A discount on registration for SIFA Quarterly End User Meetings and Developers Camps.
  6. The opportunity to join any SIFA working group or task force.
  7. The chance to network with vendors and end users at meetings and on conference calls.
  8. Your organization’s name and web site will be listed on the SIFA web site.
  9. Becoming part of the ongoing collaborative community for data interoperability.

If you have any questions about SIFA membership, contact Alison Pruitt, Membership Coordinator, at (202) 789-4460 or APruitt@sifinfo.org.