This is an announcement and Request for Comments on SQBL a new
open-source XML format for the cross-platform development of questionnaire
specifications. The design decisions behind SQBL and additional details are the
subject of a paper to be presented in 2 weeks at the 2013 IASSIST conference in
– Do We Need a Perfect Metadata Standard or is “Good Enough” Good Enough?
However, to ensure people are well-informed ahead time, I am releasing details
ahead to conference.
SQBL – The Structured (or Simple) Questionnaire Building Language is an
emerging XML format designed to allow survey researchers of all fields to
easily produce questionnaire specifications with the required structure to
enable deployment to any questionnaire platform – including, but not limited
to, Blaise, DDI, LimeSurvey, XForms and paper surveys.
Analysing the current state of questionnaire design and development shows that
there are relatively few tools available that are capable of allowing a survey
designer to easily create questionnaire specifications in a simple manner,
whilst providing the structure necessary to verify respondent routing and
provide a reliable input to the automation of questionnaire deployment.
Of the current questionnaire creations tools available, they either:
Prevent the sharing of content (such as closed tools like SurveyMonkey)
Require extensive programming experience (such as Blaise or CASES)
* or use formats that make transformation difficult (such as those based on DDI)
Given the high-cost of questionnaire design, in the creation, testing and
deployment of final questionnaires a format that can reduce the cost in any or
all of these areas will have positive effects for researchers.
Furthermore, by providing researchers with the easy tools necessary to create
questionnaires they will consequently create structured metadata, thus reducing
the well understood documentation burden for archivists.
Structured questionnaire design
Last year, I wrote a paper “The Case Against the Skip Statement”, that
described the computational theory of questionnaire logic – namely the
structures used to describe skips and routing logic in questionnaires. This
paper was awarded 3rd place in the International Association of Official
Statistics ’2013 Young Statistician Prize’ http://bit.ly/IAOS2012. This paper
is awaiting publication, but can be made available for private reading on
request. It proposed that this routing logic in questionnaires is structurally
identical to that of computer programs. Following this assertion, it stated
that a higher-order language can be created that acts as a “high-level
questionnaire specification logic” that can be compiled to any questionnaire
platform, in much the same way that computer programming languages can be
compiled to machine language. Unfortunately, while some existing formats
incorporate some of the principles of Structured Questionnaire Design, they are
incomplete or too complex to provide the proposed benefits.
SQBL – The Structured (or Simple) Questionnaire Building Language
SQBL http://sqbl.org is an XML format that acts as a high-level language for
describing questionnaire logic. Small and simple, but powerful it incorporates
XML technologies to reduce the barrier to entry and make the description of
questionnaire specifications, even in raw XML readable. Underlying this
simplicity is a strict schema that enforces single solutions to problems,
meaning SQBL can be transformed into a format for any survey tool that has a
Furthermore, because of its small schema and incorporation of XML and HTTP core
technologies, it is easier for developers to work with. In turn, this makes
survey design more comprehensible through the creation of easier tools, and
will help remove the need for costly, specialised instrument programmers
Canard – the SQBL Question Module Editor
Announced alongside the Request of Comments of SQBl is an early beta release of
the SQBL-based Canard Question Module Editor http://bit.ly/CANARD. Canard is
designed as a proof-of-concept tool to illustrate how questionnaire
specifications can be generated in an easy to use drag-and-drop interface. This
is achieved by providing designers with instant feedback on changes to
specifications through its 2 panel design that allows researchers to see the
logical specification, routing paths and example questionnaires all within the
SQBL and other standards
SQBL is not a competitor to any existing standard, mainly because a structured
approach to questionnaire design based on solid theory has never been attempted
before. SQBL fills a niche that other standards don’t yet do well.
For example, while DDI can archive any questionnaire as is, this is because
of the loose structure necessary for being able to archive uncontrolled
metadata. However, if we want to be able to make questionnaire specifications
that can be used to drive processes, what is needed is the strict structure of
Similarly, SQBL has loose couplings to other information through standard HTTP
URIs allowing linkages to any networked standard. For example, Date Elements may
be described in a DDI registry, which a SQBL question can reference via its
DDI-URI. Additionally, to support automation a survey instrument described
inside a DDI Data Collection, rather than pointing to a DDI Sequence containing
the Instrument details can use existing linkages to external standards to point
to a SQBL document via a standard URL. Once data collection is complete,
harmonisation can be performed as each SQBL module has questions pointing to
variables, so data has comparability downstream.
SQBL in action
The SQBL XML schemas are available on GitHub http://bit.ly/sqbl-schema that
also contains examples and files from video tutorials.
There is a website http://sqbl.org with more information on the format that
provides more information on some of the principles of Structured Questionnaire
If you don’t like getting your hands dirty with XML you can download the
Windows version of the Canard Question Module Editor from Dropbox
http://bit.ly/canardexe and start producing questionnaire specifications
immediately. All that needs to be done is to unzip the file and run the file
available, however this can be fixed by installing the free third-party
graphing tool Graphviz http://www.graphviz.org/
Lastly, there is a growing number of tutorial videos on how to use Canard on Youtube.
Video 1 – Basic Questions http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijk00SqoBGk (2:17 min)
Video 2 – Complex Responses http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3Vrn2B4EO4 (2:17 min)
Video 3 – Simple Logic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrAWbOF-UW8 (4:11 min)
There is also an early beta video that runs through creating an entire
questionnaire showing the side-by-side preview.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FImaXn7EYk (13:21 mins)
Joining the SQBL community
First of all there is a mailing list for SQBL hosted by Google Groups:
Along with this each of the GitHub repositories http://bit.ly/sqbl-schema,
http://bit.ly/CANARD include issue trackers. Both Canard and SQBL are in
early design stages so there is an opportunity for feedback and input to ensure
both SQBL and Canard support the needs of all questionnaire designers.
Lastly, while there are initial examples of conversion tools to transform SQBL
into DDI-Lifecycle 3.1 and XForms, there is room for growth. Given the
proliferation of customised solutions to deploy both paper and web-forms there
is a need for developers to support the creation of transformations from SQBL
into formats such as Blaise, LimeSurvey, CASES and more.
If you have made it this far thank you for reading all the way through, and I
look forward to all the feedback people have to offer.
Cheers and I look forward to feedback now or at IASSIST,
SQBL & Canard Lead Developer
IASSIST Asia/Pacific Regional Secretary