Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Survey on "Open Standards in the Public Sector"

The Cabinet Office is currently carrying out a survey on "Open Standards in the Public Sector". The widespread use of open standards in government would be a major step forward for the UK, both in terms of stimulating innovation in the IT sector by lowering barriers for entry in the public sector, and in terms of ensuring that everybody is able to use and interact with UK government online services without being required to use a particular software platform or limited set of platforms.

Two areas of the survey were of particular interest to me: the opening section on defining what exactly an "open standard" is, and the section on standards that are being evaluated for computer workstations. The survey, however, covers a huge array of areas for possible standardisation in IT (for example, content syndication, e-voting, web services and VoIP), and there's lots of scope for people with domain-specific knowledge to contribute on the areas that they're most familiar with.

I encourage everyone who is interested in seeing increased adoption of open standards in governmental IT procurement to take part in this survey — and in particular, to encourage the UK to standardise on PDF and OpenDocument rather than Microsoft's bought-and-paid-for non-standard, Office "Open" XML.

What is an open standard?

The survey outlines five conditions for an open standard that the government proposes:

1. Open standards are standards which result from and are maintained through an open, independent process.

Open standards need not necessarily result from an open and independent process -- as a classic example, the Internet Protocol and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP/IP) on which the Internet is based were developed behind closed doors by a small working group at Stanford in the early 1970s. However, I would agree that the success of TCP/IP as an open standard has very much depended on the fact that it has been maintained by an open and independent organisation (the IETF).

2. Open standards are standards which are approved by a recognised specification or standardisation organisation, for example W3C or ISO or equivalent.

There are two sources of concern with this condition. Firstly, it is unclear who maintains the list of "recognised" specification or standardisation organisations, nor how such an organisation can become "standardised", and greater clarity would be appreciated. Secondly, the ISO in particular operates extremely slowly, and waiting for ISO standardisation of an already-widely-used open standard may well hamper flexibility and responsiveness in government procurement. However, in principle this condition seems a sensible one.

3. Open standards are standards which are thoroughly documented and publicly available at zero or low cost.

This is an essential condition. If a standard's documentation cannot be be easily and inexpensively obtained, it provides a serious barrier to individuals, small companies and community organisations that wish to implement and use that standard.

4. Open standards are standards which have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis.

This condition is important in order to avoid the risk that corporations with intellectual property interests in a standard wait until the standard has widespread adoption before introducing or substantially increasing royalties.

5. Open standards are standards which as a whole can be implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms.

This is the key condition, and cuts to the heart of the reason open standards are needed. Some standards organisations require at least two independent, full implementations of a standard to exist before adopting the standard, and I would commend this approach to the Government.

Standards for computer workstations

Many of the standards listed in this section of the survey are sadly nothing of sort were not open, and many of them weren't standards either. Highlights that I particularly enjoyed included:

  • The presence of .doc, .xls and .ppt files as a "standard", and inclusion of Microsoft's Office Open XML, which is hardly "open".
  • HTML as an document format for presentations and spreadsheet data.
  • A section on video/animation formats that included no open standards whatsoever, and included .swf files (neither open nor standardised) twice.
  • It was heartening, however, to see Open Document Format listed, along with Unicode and UCS (although why Unicode isn't already mandatory is beyond me).

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