The Eighteen Character Problem

Metadata, Electronic Document Management and the Digital Library for E-commerce

Tom Worthington FACS

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University, Canberra

For: Computing 3410 Students, The Australian National University
This document is Version 1.3 25 July 2000:
Note 9 August 2002: The Internet Archive has been used to replace some documents no longer available on-line.


This material was prepared for the unit Information Technology in Electronic Commerce (COMP3410) at the Australian National University, semester 2, 2000. It is intended to introduce two topics: Metadata and Electronic Document Management/Digital Library.

This is intended to complement other components of the unit on applications of information technology in electronic commerce. Metadata and Electronic Document Management is intended to fit with lectures on document representation (XML, XSL, DTD, CSS), knowledge discovery (search engines, web-based data mining), trading (spontaneous, deliberative, auctions) and security (encryption, public key, symmetric key, PKI, authentication, etc). The material may also be of use to those interested in the issues, but not undertaking formal study.

Rather than take the usual approach of introducing the fundamentals of the subject and then build up to more complex cases and a few case studies, the reverse is used. One case study of a very large and real world problem is used to introduce the topic: how to implement a system by the end of 2000 to electronically transmit information about every payment to Australian businesses by all Commonwealth Government agencies. A detailed study of trading systems will be undertaken in a later part of this course.

Those looking for the simple and definitive answers to the questions posed in this work may be disappointed. At the time of writing, these remain unsolved problems for e-commerce. Material from the Australian Government is being used as an example here, as it is familiar to the author and detailed descriptions of the work available for study. Many other organisations around the world are expending considerable resources on solving these problems, but the results are restricted by commercial considerations.

Even where there appear to be technical answers to the problems there are a number of possible answers, with incompatible and overlapping standards. Exactly what the problem is and if those who could solve it and will cooperate to do so is not necessarily clear. If students are to understand the complexities of information technology (IT) development in the real world, they need to see the political aspects of the problem, to understand why the most technically elegant solution may not be chosen. This first document poses the eighteen character problem, later documents will look at metadata and electronic document technologies which might help solve the problem.


Upon completion of this part of the unit, the student will be able to do the following:

Metadata (Data about Data) is essential for e-commerce, as it provides standard data items to allow parties to communicate about their organisations, products, terms and conditions. Also the actual payment and the "money" itself consists of data in an agreed meta-data format, in an electronic transaction. Without suitable meta-data standards, e-commerce could not take place and "money" in our online financial systems would cease to exist.

Electronic Document Management allows legally recognised documents used in e-commerce transactions to be created, transmitted and stored. Without electronic document management, fast and efficient e-commerce transactions would be buried under mounds of paper documenting the transactions, or be tied up in litigation over the authenticity of the electronic originals. The Digital Library has the potential to allow access to electronic documents, while respecting the intellectual property right of the author.

Commonwealth Electronic Procurement Implementation Strategy

The Commonwealth Electronic Procurement Implementation Strategy (OGO 2000) was released on 3 April 2000. The strategy consists of an overarching framework and a series of projects intended to assist Commonwealth agencies and their suppliers implement online procurement.

The e-procurement strategy has two goals for Commonwealth Government agencies:

  1. All suppliers will be paid electronically by the end of 2000.

  2. All suppliers involved in simple procurement will have the option of dealing with the Government Commonwealth electronically, using open standards, by the end of 2001

The e-procurement strategy is part of the Government's overall Online Strategy (DCITA 2000).

The strategy consists of (it should be noted that these actions become less technical and more political from top to bottom of the list):

  1. Enabling actions: projects to ensure the strategy is implemented (eg Government Single Supplier Database, implementation of standard remittance advice format to facilitate e-payment).

  2. Pilots and demonstrations: generally not to test technology, but rather to assess the business case

  3. Cooperation with industry: seeking input to ensure industry interests (suppliers and e-commerce service providers) are represented, and participating in industry initiatives.

  4. Cooperation with other jurisdictions: to promote a national approach across government to online procurement.

  5. Marketing and communications strategy: developing and implementing a strategy to inform agencies and suppliers and encourage their participation.

  6. Promoting best practice: through monitoring e-procurement developments, promoting best practice, and facilitating exchange of information between agencies.

  7. Monitoring progress: identifying agency progress in achieving the strategy goals, and identifying impediments to implementation.

The origins the strategy can, in part, be traced back to work on the Network Services (Clarke 1994).

Three projects under this strategy are:

  1. Government Single Supplier Database (OGO 2000a):

    This project aims to minimise the cost to SMEs when registering to deal with government. This is a two-phase project, starting with phase one in the 99/00 financial year.
    Phase one will scope the requirement for a single supplier registration database and will begin work on the development of data fields for the database. Subject to technical feasibility, phase two will enable the design, development and implementation of a web-based process to provide businesses with a single location to register as a supplier to the Commonwealth Government.
  2. BEP Government Tender Discoverability, (OGO 2000b):

    OGO is the lead agency for a project to enable users to access information about government public tenders (whether issued by the Commonwealth, a State or Territory Government) through the BEP. Currently all jurisdictions have their own tender websites - this project will provide a cross-jurisdictional search capability.
    The project has been commissioned by the Australian Procurement and Construction Council, a ministerial council that includes representatives from the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments.
    OGO is working with other jurisdictions to define what tender data should be available, and with the BEP managers to develop the discoverability capability.
    It is intended that jurisdictions will be able to upload tender notice data automatically from their tender websites (in the case of the Commonwealth, this is the Government Advertising Site). This will ensure there will be no impact on government users:- once procurement officers have lodged their tender notices with the website for their jurisdiction, they will not need to repeat the process for the BEP website. A pilot site is being evaluated, and is planned for release later in 2000.
  3. Remittance Advice, (OGO 2000c):

    The Remittance Advice project will draw on existing international standard document definitions (eg UN/EDIFACT, ANSI X12) to determine the standard content of a remittance advice to accompany government electronic payment to suppliers.
    Particular characteristics that the standard content will require are:
    1. the ability to be linked unambiguously to specific payments on a bank statement to allow reconciliation of multiple and partial payments within a single transaction;
    2. the ability to be presented in multiple formats, including but not limited to, facsimile, email, and HTML, without loss of content, authority or efficacy; and
    3. the ability to be implemented at little or no cost in existing agency FMIS installations, preferably through standard government templates, where applicable.
      The project will not implement the solution in agencies.

    These three projects are designed to enable three important aspects of e-commerce:

    1. Discovering who you can do business with,

    2. Arranging a contract, and,

    3. Getting paid (BEP 2000)

    Getting paid on the Internet

    Government agencies face many of the same problems as businesses in conducting e-commerce, including how to get paid. Work by the author (BEP 2000) detailed the methods by which payments may be made:

    Payment clearing is the exchange of payment instruction, represented by Payment Instruments, such as cheques, for value between providers of payment services. Clearers provide the means for individuals and businesses to transfer value, one to the other, regardless of where particular accounts are held. Clearers accept throughout each day open-ended obligations drawn on like institutions, as a matter of course. A high level of mutual confidence is needed between clearers for the payments system to operate effectively.

    While payment instruments, such as Credit Cards may be suitable for low value, one off consumer transactions, Direct entry (DE) is more applicable for high value and repeated transactions used in business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce (BEP 2000):

    The direct entry system, available to organisations, including government agencies, for making payments to, or receiving payments from, large numbers of their employees and clients, is a development and refinement of long-standing pre-authorised payments arrangements. The Reserve Bank is a major participant in the direct entry system, processing social security and other government payments.
    The direct entry system allows approved organisations to make arrangements with their financial institution to debit and/or credit large numbers of customer accounts on a regular basis. Organisations can be credit users in the system, making payments (direct credits), or debit users receiving payments (direct debits).
    The most common examples of credit users are those businesses that credit their employees' accounts with the amount of their salaries. Other less common examples of direct credits made to accounts by credit users are for payment of interest and dividends, rent and commissions.
    Businesses and organisations use direct debits to draw funds from their customers' accounts for the value of, for example, insurance premiums, utility bills, repayments of debt and the like. Direct debiting of these accounts is carried out under an authority signed by each customer.
    A single counterpart cover payment in the form of an offsetting debit or credit, as the case may be, is made to the organisation's account corresponding to the sum of the credits or debits made to their employees'/customers'/debtors' etc. accounts. Credits to accounts are irrevocable in nature and cannot be reversed. Debits, on the other hand, are provisional and can be dishonoured in similar fashion to cheques.
    Prior to 31 March 2000, a customer wishing to pay recurring amounts by direct debit arranged to have the payments made automatically by signing a standard paper form. From 31 March 2000 electronic forms have been accepted.

    Eighteen Character Problem

    No special registration is required to accept Direct Entry; it is automatically available for any Australian financial institution account. Those making a payment require the account name, account number and Bank State Branch (BSB) number of the party being paid. However, reconciliation of the payment with the payer and invoice can be difficult. The banking system provides an 18 character description field sent with the payment in which to record what the payment is for. There is no error checking system on this field. Systems such as the BPAY electronic bill payment service offered by a number of financial institutions, use check digits to detect transcription errors in the reference field. However, the standardised finanacial system has no such checking. How to fit a standard, complete and reliable description of the payment into this small field can be termed the Eighteen Character Problem.

    The Commonwealth Electronic Procurement Implementation Strategy proposes use of the Direct Entry system to pay all suppliers electronically by the end of 2000 (OGO 2000). This requires solving the Eighteen Character Problem within the next few months:

    Optimum efficiency and cost effectiveness will be achieved through direct credit payments to suppliers' bank accounts. Most agencies already complete payment activities electronically with their banks. With the introduction of the Shared Systems Suite Initiative and the inclusion of financial management information systems, most agencies now have, and some routinely use, the capacity to transact all elements of payments to suppliers electronically. Furthermore, the banking system has long had the capability to directly credit supplier bank accounts when suitably instructed.
    The diagram below illustrates one variation of the proposed process.
    Diagram of proposed payment process
    Proposed payment process
    1. The supplier presents an invoice to the agency requesting payment for specific goods and services; this process may be redundant if goods and services receipt is conducted electronically to trigger payment.
    2. The agency (after approving the invoice, if relevant) instructs its bank to pay the supplier on a specific day, the period established by the arrangements between the agency and the supplier.
    3. (a) The bank deposits the payment directly into the supplier's bank account on the pre-determined day; and
      (b) where necessary the agency, or its bank, electronically sends the remittance advice for the payment to the supplier.
    4. The bank provides normal supplier account statements regularly. Suppliers to Government have indicated that the main reason for not moving to electronic payments has been the inadequacy of the current 18-character remittance advice provided by the banking system to reconcile direct entry payments.
    The main inhibitors to the full-scale adoption of electronic payments to suppliers could be overcome by:
    1. developing a means of providing an appropriate remittance advice to coincide with the electronic payment; and
    2. encouraging suppliers to accept direct credit by requesting the necessary bank account details at contract signature or at registration on an approved government supplier database.
    The Government will take action to define the standard content for remittance advice and obtain endorsement by industry of that standard.
    Once the appropriate remittance advice content has been developed Commonwealth agencies can fully implement the goal of this strategy to pay all suppliers electronically by the end of 2000.
    Electronic remittance advice will be provided in one of the following ways:
    1. the agency sends an electronic remittance advice to the supplier either directly or through a third party who delivers the advice in a format acceptable to the supplier (e.g. EDIPOST, FaxPOST, Lettergram); or
    2. the agency's bank transmits the electronic remittance advice on the agency's behalf (allowing for consolidation of payments and respective remittance advice).

    Postscript: The Zero Character Problem

    As this presentation was being prepared, another problem came to light with using Direct Credit for payment. The author remitted tax payments by direct credit to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) account, as per the instructions on the ATO web page (ATO 2000). This was done using Internet banking and the receipt from the transaction showed the correct Reference Number entered in the description field. The next day the ATO called to ask what the money was for, as nothing had been received in the description field. It is not clear that the time of writing where in the financial system the fault lies, but it could be described as: The Zero Character Problem". ;-)


    Material from the Office for Government Online, Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts and the Business Entry Point Management Branch, Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, is Copyright (Commonwealth of Australia) and is used by permission.


    1. ATO (2000) How to pay your taxes, Business Entry Point Management Branch, Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Commonwealth of Australia, 2000, URL:

    2. BEP (2000) Internet Payments for Government Agencies, Business Entry Point Management Branch, Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Commonwealth of Australia, 2000, URL:

    3. OGO (2000) Government Electronic Procurement Implementation Strategy, Office for Government Online, Commonwealth of Australia, 2000, URL:

    4. OGO (2000a) Government Single Supplier Database, Office for Government Online, Commonwealth of Australia, 2000, URL:

    5. OGO (2000b) BEP Government Tender Discoverability, Office for Government Online, Commonwealth of Australia, 2000, URL:

    6. OGO (2000c) Remittance Advice, Office for Government Online, Commonwealth of Australia, 2000, URL:

    7. Clarke (1994) Vision for a Networked Nation - The Public Interest in Network Services, Submission to ASTEC Working Group on Research Data Networks, Broadband Services Expert Group, Bulletin Boards Task Force, Senate Standing Committee on Industry, Science, Technology, Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, Australian Computer Society, 17 May 1994, URL:

    8. DCITA (2000) GovernmentOnline - The Commonwealth Government's Strategy, Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, April 2000, URL:

    Further Information

    1. Accompanying slides and Audio Slideshow also available

    2. Next section: Metadata for E-commerce

    3. Tutorial questions and Answers
    4. Computing 3410

    5. Author's home page

    Copyright © Tom Worthington 2000.