Yesterday you may have read that a decade of spatial standards were very nearly compromised when the interface to the proprietary ArcGIS Server was almost certified as an open standard, introducing a complete competing suite of standards to the existing baseline.
I believe there are powerful lessons to be learned. While standards are key to enabling interoperability, if applied incorrectly, introduction of new standards can achieve the exact opposite.
Why is it that governments and standards organisations are not trained to recognise the difference?
So what is an Open Standard?
Most government purchasing guidelines, such as the United Kingdom Open Source, Open Standards and ReUse: Government Action Plan, now include clauses such as:
The Government will use open standards in its procurement specifications and require solutions to comply with open standards. The Government will support the development of open standards and specifications.
Consequently, government contracts typically specify use of standards when purchasing systems. This places a responsibility on standards organisations to protect government policy when selecting and defining a standards baseline.
Superficially, vendor-led specifications like the "Geoservices REST API" meet the European Interoperability Framework minimal definition of a standard:
- The standard is adopted and will be maintained by a not-for-profit organisation, and its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties (consensus or majority decision etc.).
- The standard has been published and the standard specification document is available either freely or at a nominal charge. It must be permissible to all to copy, distribute and use it for no fee or at a nominal fee.
- The intellectual property - i.e. patents possibly present - of (parts of) the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis.
- There are no constraints on the re-use of the standard.
But did Esri’s proposal, and others like it, address government policy drivers for the creation of standards?
Consider the Guideline on Public Procurement of Open Source Software, written for the European Commission:
“Public sector consumers of software have an obligation to support interoperability, transparency and flexibility, as well as economical use of public funds. When it comes to public procurement, the principles applied to the public sector require them to support (and certainly not to harm) competition through their procurement practices. Good practice eGovernment services should provide access based on open standards, and in particular, never require citizens to purchase or use systems from specific vendors in order to access public services: this is equivalent to granting such vendors a state-sanctioned monopoly.'
A blueprint for moving forward
What do governments and standards organisations need to do to protect themselves in future? I suggest the following:
Governments should develop and embrace policies that embody government best practices.
Standards organisations should embrace such government policies.
A clear definition of an "open standard" is required, which is extended to include government policy requirements of interoperability, fair competition, free access to government services, and economical use of public funds. This should be expanded into clear guidelines to be applied by authors and gatekeepers of standards.
- Suitable training should be available to gatekeepers and implementers of standards based solutions. And most importantly, gatekeepers should be resourced with sufficient time and provided with sufficient training to provide detailed and unbiased analysis of future standards.
Cameron Shorter is Geospatial Architect at LISAsoft, contributor to and board member of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo), and regular contributor to OGC spatial standards testbeds. He blogged on, and coordinated concerned responses to the “Geoservices REST API” proposed standard. This opinion column represents his personal views and not necessarily the views of his employer or Haymarket Media.