Open Standards Consultation and Open Data Standards Challenges

Take a look around you… see that plug socket? If you’re in the UK, it should conform to British Standard BS1363 (you can read the spec if you have have you credit card to hand…). Take a listen around you… is that someone listening to an audio device playing an MP3 music file? ISO/IEC 11172-3:1993 (or ISO/IEC 13818-3:1995) helped make that possible… “that” being the agreed upon standard that let the music publisher put the audio file into a digital format that the maker of the audio device knows how to recognise and decode. (Beware, though. The MP3 specification is tainted with all sorts of patents – so you need to check whether or if you need to pay someone in order to build a device that encodes or decodes MP3 files.) If the music happens to be being played from a CD (hard to believe, but bear with me!), then you’ll be thankful the CD maker and the audio player manufacturer agreed to both work with a physical object that conforms to IEC 60908 ed2.0 (“Audio recording – Compact disc digital audio system”), and that maybe makes use of Standard ECMA-130 (also available as ISO/IEC 10149:1995). That Microsoft Office XML document you just opened somewhere? ISO/IEC 29500-1:2011. And so on…

Standards make interoperability possible. Which means that standards can be a valuable thing. If I create a standard that allows lots of things to interoperate, and I “own” the “intellectual property” associated with that standard, I can make you pay every time you sell a device that implements that standard. If I control the process by which the standard is defined and updated, then I can make changes to the standard that may or may not be to your benefit but with which you have to comply if you want to continue to be able to use the standard.

There are at least a couple of issues we need to take into account, then, when we look at adopting or “buying in” to a standard: who says what goes in to the standard, and how is agreement reach about those things; and under what terms is usage of the standard allowed (for example, do I have to pay to make use of the standard, do I have to pay in order to even read the standard).

At the adoption level, there is also the question of who decides what standard to adopt, and the means by which adoption of the standard is forced onto other parties. In the case of legislation, governments have the power to inflict a considerable financial burden on companies and government agencies by passing legislation that mandates the adoption of a particular standard that has some of fee associated with it’s use. Even outside of legislation, if a large organisation requires its suppliers to use a particular standard, then it could be commercial suicide for a supplier not to adopt the standard even if there are direct licensing costs associated with using it.

If we want to reduce the amount of friction in a process that is introduced by costs associated with the adoption of standards that make that process possible, then “open standards” may be a way forward. But what are “open standards” and what might we expect of them?

A new consultation from the Cabinet Office seeks views on this matter, with a view towards adopting open standards (whatever they are?!;-) across government, wherever possible: Cabinet Office calls on IT Community to engage in Open Standards consultation. In particular, the consultation will inform:

– the definition of open standards in the context of government IT;
– the meaning of mandation and the effects compulsory standards may have on government departments, delivery partners and supply chains; and
– international alignment and cross-border interoperability.

The consultation closes on 1 May 2012.

(Hmm, the consultation doesn’t seem to be online commentable… wouldn’t it be handy if there was something around like the old WriteToReply…?;-)

Here’s a related “open data standards in government” session from UKGovCamp 2012:

Related to the whole open standards thang is a new challenge on the Standards Hub posted by the HM Gov Open Data Standards (Shadow*) Panel (disclaimer: I’m a member of said panel; it’s (Shadow) because the board it will report to has not been formally constituted yet). The challenge covers open standards for “Managing and Using Terms and Codes” and seeks input from concerned parties relating to document standards and specifications relating to the coding and publication of controlled term lists, their provenance, version control/change files, and so on. (So for example, if you happened to work on the W3C provenance data model (which I note has reached the third working draft stage), and think it’s relevant, it might be worth bringing it to the attention of the panel as a reply to the challenge).

It occurs to me that recent JISC activity relating to UK Discovery intitiative may have something to say about the issues involved with, and formats appropriate for, representing and sharing data lists, so I commend the challenge to them: open standards for “Managing and Using Terms and Codes” (I’ll also pick my way through the #ukdiscovery docs and feed anything I find there back to the panel). I also suspect the library and shambrarian community may have something to offer, as well as members of the Linked Universities community…

[A quick note on the Open Data Standards Panel – it’s role in part is to help identify and recommend open standards appropriate for adoption across government, as well as identify areas where there is a need for open standards development. It won’t directly develop any standards, although it may have a role in recommending the commissioning of standards.]

A couple of other things to note on sort of tangentially related matters (this post is in danger of turning in to a newsletter, methinks… [hmmm: should I do a weekly newsletter?!]):

  • JISC just announced some invitations to tender on the production of some reports on Digital Infrastructure Directions. The reports are to cover the following areas: Advantages of APIs, Embedded Licences: What, Why and How, Activity Data: Analytics and Metrics, The Open Landscape, Access to citation data: a cost-benefit and risk review and forward look.
  • the Open Knowledge Foundations has a post up Announcing the School of Data, “a joint venture between the Open Knowledge Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU)”. The course is still in the early planning stage, and volunteers are being sought…

Related: last year, the OU co-produced a special series of programmes on “openness” with the BBC World Service Digital Planet/Click (radio) programme. You can listen to the programmes again here:

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

%d bloggers like this: