The Other Sort of Higher Education Standards…

…that is, not standards in the sense of university league tables, but standards in the sense of British Standards, open standards, and interoperability standards…

Standards help make things work together. Whether they’re mandated from the top down, or grow up from grass roots conventions, norms, and widely adopted usage examples, standards provide a means by which independent parties can design their own systems in the reasonable expectation that they will work with products or applications developed by others. In some cases, the standard may also demonstrate best practice, or provide an efficient way of tackling some problem, (that is, it may help you be lazy…). Widely adopted standards are often supported by tooling that make it easier to adopt or a deploy a particular standard, such as code libraries that can import and export particular file types, and so on.

In the data world, publishing data in a standard way supports the creation of aggregation and analysis tools that can be used to analyse data published according to the standard from multiple separate sources. Sometimes, third parties step in to normalise data that is published severally by different parties, even if it purports to be the same thing. For example, Chris Taggart’s OpenlyLocal aggregates local council data published in a wide variety of formats by UK local councils, normalises it and makes it available through a single API, around which third parties can build services that will then apply to *all* UK councils whose data is aggregated on OpenlyLocal.

Many public bodies have a duty to make data submissions to both local and central government as part of their formal reporting requirements. For local government, this burden is captured by the DCLG single data list; in HE, a recent review for the HESA project on Redesigning the higher education data and information landscape included a review of reporting requirements on HEIS – survey available via that project’s reports archive (see also getTheData: Data Burden on UK Higher Education). The review itself is currently ongoing and invites representation from “Data gatherers (professional statutory and regulatory bodies),
[d]ata providers (HE providers and their representative organisations), [and d]ata users (this includes students and potential students as well as all of the above bodies)”.

The HE Information Landscape project has identified the following initial set of principles:

The following initial project principles that were considered by the Steering Group on 17 February 2011.

  • Pursue the aim of ‘collect once use many times’ wherever practicable, working to align different bodies to avoid duplication of effort.
  • Enable the collection of essential, comprehensive, consistent and timely information that meets the requirements of the new regulatory framework in England and is, so far as possible, fit for purpose across the UK HE landscape.
  • Achieve efficiency and data sharing through the development and adoption of information and technical standards.
  • Ensure any data can be trusted and attributed to its provenance by defining robust quality assurance processes.
  • Foster open access to information wherever possible while respecting IPR, DPA and other regulatory, statutory and information management requirements for the processing of data.
  • Seek to manage demands for increased data collection and mitigate these through well-targeted use of technology, looking where possible to streamline data collection.

So how does this sit in the wider context of public sector ICT standards in general? Although the UK Gov Open Standards Board has not yet been constituted (applications for volunteer positions are open till March 22nd: Open Standards Board – Volunteer Members and Board Advisers, – Ref:1238758 ), the (Shadow) Open Data Standards Panel has met three times (disclaimer: I’m on it). The panel’s current mode of operation is to run a series of challenges via the Standards Hub around a set of topic areas. The intention behind the challenges is to seek feedback and recommendations on current standards or conventions used within the area, identifying candidates that can be passed to the Board as potential recommended open standards, or identifying the need for open standards development on a particular topic. At the current time, two challenges have been issued by the panel: Standards for Open Public Services, and one on Managing and Using Terms and Codes. (I had hoped that participants in the recent CETIS workshop on vocabularies might put in a response to that challenge;-) Challenges from other panels are also available.

What I’m wondering is whether anyone in the edu community thinks a challenge in the education area would be a Good Thing (i.e. are there any standardisation efforts that would benefit the sector, and would anyone be minded to submit a response to challenge;-), and if so, what form might it take? I’m also wondering about the extent to which the Open Data Standards Panel might be a stakeholder in the HESA Information Landscape project (and maybe even vice versa: i.e. to what extent might HESA be a stakeholder in a suitably framed Standards Hub challenge? Of course, it’s probably completely impolitic publicly blogging this, and I may not make it through to full Panel membership when the (Shadow) moniker is dropped, but hey, that’s the price of transparency and openness for you!)

In recent times we have seen the evolution of the XCRI (course data exchange format) (XCRI historical timeline), over the next year or two there’s likely to be all sorts of work around the Key Information Sets (KIS Data Standards), as well as wider work on course data (eg the University of Lincoln’s JISC funded ON Course open course data project (disclaimer: I’m doing a day’s consultancy for them next week)), so there is standards work to be done. The HESA Information Landscape review seems pretty far reaching, so there are presumably sector specific, as well as generic, standards issues to be raised there. If university open data/open linked data initiatives then conventions, norms and maybe even standards will emerge from bottom up activity mediated there. Recent changes to research council funding suggest that universities will increasingly need to manage their facilities in a semi-commercial way, maybe requiring standard ways of defining facilities; estates management is another area where universities have major needs, some that are emphasised in the academic domain (timetabling rooms, for example), others that are more generic (such as energy monitoring). Choosing basic list definition formats (as in the Managing and Using Terms and Codes (meta)-challenge is a generic requirement, as are matters such as vocabulary definitions surrounding ethnicity, gender and so on (I guess the sector uses things like HESA standard ethnicity codes?), which are matters that will be covered by generic challenges but could also be referenced from an education focussed challenge. And so on… So the question before the house is: would an education sector challenge be of interest, and if so, what sort of thing should it cover? Or are there generic challenges that might apply across government/public bodies, but that would also get a buy in from, and offer benefit to, the educational sector?

And finally, something I haven’t managed to get my head fully round yet is how the Open Data Standards Panel might relate to things like the Information Standards Board (ISB) for Education, Skills and Children’s Services and the NHS Information Standards Board for Health and Social Care (see also: Connecting for Health/NHS Data Standards and the NHS Information Governance Toolkit – is there a mapping from the governance toolkit onto related datasets?) on the one hand, and the Transparency Board on the other? For example, in the latter case, the Transparency Board minutes for the 15th Nov 2011 meeting described a “[discussion with] Guy Goodwin, Director of Population, Health and Regional Analysis, Office for National Statistics, and Jason Bradbury, Deputy Director, National Statistician’s Office, UK Statistics Authority provided background to the current work of Official Statistics” as follows:

  • It would be helpful to consider the ‘privacy and jigsaw effect’ point in greater detail at a later Board meeting to ensure that appropriate anonymisation techniques were understood and used, and that data was presented in a way that was still useful.
  • Recognition of the challenge in moving up accessibility scale due to IT platform barriers; and recognition of the skills gaps in creating open data which exists across government as a whole.
  • The GSS community was the model for skills in extracting the utility of data across government and the public sector, and as such should be the lead for the promotion of these skills in a roll out to the wider public sector.
  • A desire for GSS to help by establishing standard 4* definitions for GSS standard data categories, e.g. geographies.

The need for producers around government to move from creating “table builder capability” (inflexible and often not open format) to consistent URLs that can be linked to over time (enabling higher levels of accessibility and re-use). GG supported this view and noted the GSS was heading in that direction.
ONS had published Consumer Prices and Retail Prices microdata for the first time in response to an FOI request, made by an individual; with transparency in mind made this available via its website for all to re-use. The information was published to a good level of detail and would now be published routinely.
Action: Office for National Statistics to forward a detailed case study of this Consumer Prices and Retail Prices microdata publication to the Transparency Board

So what I’m wondering here are a couple of things. Firstly, by posting open minutes in a syndication supporting way, it’s easy enough for different panels to share what they’re doing with other panels in a weak tie sort of way. Secondly, the Transparency minute above suggests that there is some hope for the idea that FOI requests can lead to the everyday, matter-of-course release of data as open public data (see also things like data taps in this context). Which is where formal and informal standards may have a role to play, in encouraging best practice models for the release as data, either as conventions, or as recognised open standards.

PS in passing, a bit of a rant: Can someone let me have copies of the #opendata usage example casestudies mentioned in Francis Maude’s “Open Data Innovation Community” speech that aren’t open on Thanks…;-)

See also: TT381 Presentation – Open Data and Open Standards. There’s also a consultation open at the moment on open standards that seeks feedback on the extent to which folk like or don’t like the government’s take on the defining criteria for open standards before it formally adopts them (i.e. consultation in pre-emptive mitigation of PR flak;-): UKGov Open Standards Consultation.

On the to read list: Demos: The Data Dividend, Francis Maude’s speech to the World Bank on data’s role in transparency, Tim Davies on NT Open Data Days: Exploring data flow in a VCO, Francis Irving and Rufus Pollock on From CMS to DMS: C is for Content, D is for Data.


  1. lornamcampbell

    Hi Tony, here via Sheila….An educational sector standards development challenge is certainly a fascinating idea. Having observed a variety of standards development models in action over the years this might be as good a way to do things as any. I’m even more intrigued by cross body generic challenges with buy in from a range of sectors including education as we do generally seem to be moving towards the adoption of generic web standards rather than domain specific education standards, XCRI excepted. How do you think such a challenge might be scoped?

  2. Tony Hirst

    @lorna That’s one of the things I’m trying to get a feeling for…;-)

    One approach might to try to align it to the HESA Info Landscape review but I mindful that I don’t really understand the politics and inter-agency tensions that might arise if HESA thought the open data standards panel was encroaching on turf. The simplistic way I see it is that the open data standards panel is trying to get a process in place for identifying and recommending (or commissioning the development of) open data standards and HESA are trying to plan out an info landscape that will make use of standards. If the two groups can get their processes to align and complement each other somehow, that must be a win?! It’s also likely that the Landscape review will turn up issues that are: a) public sector generic, and b) education sector specific, so it may be that there are different process models that identify different information flows (eg HESA drawing on or feeding in to the Terms and Codes challenge, or paying heed to recommendations that come out of it; Data Standards Panel working with HESA to pose a challenge that feeds the Landscape review on the one hand, and maybe leads to identifying standards that also work for other parts of the public sector (eg elements of facilities or estates management).

    Happy to bounce ideas around here or via another channel – though I think there is something to be said for the open and transparent approach;-)