Future of Interoperability Standards – factors contributing to reuse

Reuse requires awareness: to support that, how?

As my inputs to the CETIS FIS meeting on 24th September were partly to do with extensibility and reuse, I facilitated a small but select group initially charged with talking about extensibility and reuse. It included Alan Paull, a colleague very active in the XCRI and HEAR work, and two others who I did not know previously, one (Roger) from a large computer business, and one (Neil) ploughing his own furrow. And rather than talking about the mechanics of extensibility and reuse, we found ourselves pulled back to more human issues.

A key emerging point, that perhaps deserves more attention, is that before anyone can reuse or extend another specification or standard, they have to know of it, and then know about it. How do people actually get to know about specs that they might find reuseful, or extendable? You can make a standard perfectly extendable, or reusable, but if the appropriate people do not know about it, it will not be reused or extended. What can we do about that?

It was suggested:

  • publish case studies of good practice
  • support the community of practice
  • maintain a standards map, functional and technical
  • signpost related standards

We do much of this already, of course, in CETIS, but it is still notable that many people (including Roger and Neil) only came across this meeting by accident. In HE, maybe CETIS is not unknown or unreachable, but outside, how do we reach people?

The next major point we came up with was that XML is not be best vehicle for extendability and reuse. There is a tendency for people to be lulled into writing their own XML schemas – a practice that CETIS has warned against for some time – and it is very easy to create XML schemas in a way that is hard to extend or reuse.

To address this, Roger indicated that his big company was already very interested in Semantic Web ideas. The underlying structure of RDF (not RDF/XML!) naturally lends itself to decomposing complex structures into nodes and links. The problem of extension largely disappears, but the problem of reuse remains, in that to get reuse of Semantic Web information, people have either to use the same URIs (both for subjects and properties) or to set up and use links to indicate equivalence. owl:sameAs is of course useful (see sameAs.org) but not a panacea. I have been saying for a long time that we need to be using something like skos:exactMatch and skos:closeMatch. So, perhaps we need to focus on

  1. tools to help people put in the links for the linked data
  2. helping people define the links in the first place
  3. understanding other difficulties that seem to be present, and overcoming them

Another point that I drew from the discussion was that the more that any data is used, the more motivation people have for keeping it up to date. Thus, the more that information about people is consolidated, the more there is a single copy that is used many times rather than several copies each of which is used less often. We need to keep kicking to kick-start the virtuous circle of using standards to help information to be consolidated, and further motivating people to consolidate it – and that naturally means to link it, probably in a linked data kind of way.

Motivation also depends on the economics and politics. What if changing the way that things are done (inevitably, along with the improvements we are suggesting) shifts costs from one party to another? It may be that costs are cut overall, but what if many costs are cut, but a few costs, of key players, are raised? We will have to keep aware of this happening, and think how to solve it when it arises.

Perhaps at a tangent to our main topic, we noted that XCRI-CAP is not a completely satisfying whole, and needs to be extended to cope with other areas of course-related information.

And the “ecosystem” that is the world of standards and specifications needs to take into account the motivation for standardisation in the first place. Perhaps CETIS could be a bit more ambitious about the niche we carve out for ourselves?