UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Openness in One Country

Posted by Brian Kelly on 10 April 2012

Reflections on the Openness Guest Blog Posts

A series of guest posts have been published on this blog over the past week or so. As described in the Announcement of a Series of Openness Guest Blog Posts the posts were published following a series of articles about openness which were published in the latest issue of JISC Inform. The guest posts were:

For me these posts, and the articles in JISC Inform, explored the benefits which could be gained through adoption of a variety of open practices, ranging from open access for research papers, development of open educational resources (OERs), making content available on Wikipedia, consuming content provided by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) to support personal staff development and embracing openness by supporting ‘amplified events‘ as well as exploring ways in which Creative Commons licences may be used to support such goals.

“Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access”

Openness was regarded as a means to an end, and not as a goal in itself. Such approaches reflect the ideas described in a paper on Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access by myself, Scott Wilson (JISC CETIS) and Randy Metcalf (JISC OSSWatch) in which we provided the following abstract:

For national advisory services in the UK (UKOLN, CETIS, and OSS Watch), varieties of openness (open source software, open standards, and open access to research publications and data) present an interesting challenge. Higher education is often keen to embrace openness, including new tools such as blogs and wikis for students and staff. For advisory services, the goal is to achieve the best solution for any individual institution’s needs, balancing its enthusiasm with its own internal constraints and long term commitments. For example, open standards are a genuine good, but they may fail to gain market acceptance. Rushing headlong to standardize on open standards may not be the best approach. Instead a healthy dose of pragmatism is required. Similarly, open source software is an excellent choice when it best meets the needs of an institution, but not perhaps without reference to those needs. Providing open access to data owned by museums sounds like the right thing to do, but progress towards open access needs to also consider the sustainability plan for the service. Regrettably institutional policies and practices may not be in step with the possibilities that present themselves. Often a period of reflection on the implications of such activity is what is needed. Advisory services can help to provide this reflective moment. UKOLN, for example, has developed of a Quality Assurance (QA) model for making use of open standards. Originally developed to support the Joint Information Systems Committee’s (JISC) digital library development programmes, it has subsequently been extended across other programmes areas. Another example is provided by OSS Watch’s contribution to the development of JISC’s own policy on open source software for its projects and services. The JISC policy does not mandate the use of open source, but instead guides development projects through a series of steps dealing with IPR issues, code management, and community development, which serve to enhance any JISC-funded project that takes up an open source development methodology. CETIS has provided a range of services to support community awareness and capability to make effective decisions about open standards in e-learning, and has informed the JISC policy and practices in relation to open standards in e-learning development. Again, rather than a mandate, the policy requires development projects to become involved in a community of practice relevant to their domain where there is a contextualised understanding of open standards.

Although the paper was written in 2007 such pragmatic approaches appear particularly relevant for today’s changed environment in which institutions need to make policy decisions which take into account not only the a continually changing technical environment, but also reduced levels of funding and changing expectations from the user communities, including students who will be paying significant sums of money to attend university and research councils who will be facing pressures to demonstrate the value of investment in research activities.

As described in the Enabling Open Scholarship blog:

The UK’s Research Councils have proposed a revised policy on Open Access (PDF format) which further clarifies RCUK’s definition of OA and strengthens some of the criteria that must be satisfied. In particular, the policy commits to libre Open Access as the agreed RCUK definition, and permits an embargo of not longer than 6 months except for research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.

I welcome this policy, which was featured in yesterday’s Guardian in an article which described how the “Wellcome Trust joins ‘academic spring’ to open up science“. However I do acknowledge that some people, such as Tom Olijhoek, have expressed objections:

I do have strong objections to the acceptance of delayed open access as a valid form of open access. This may be a compromise so that (certain) publishers will accept the policy, however there are enough open access publishers that do not impose an embargo and I don’t see why we (scientists) should give in to the wishes of a specific group of publishers. 

The Hard Line Perspective

Others, such as Glyn Moody, have expressed similar strong objections to a perceived failure to mandate another form of openness – open standards – with Glyn Moody, in January 2012, making his views clear in an article published in Computer Weekly: UK Government Betrayal of Open Standards Confirmed. Glyn Moody’s post, which suggested that “The British government withdrew its open standards policy after lobbying from Microsoft, it has been revealed in a Cabinet Office brief leaked to Computer Weekly“, was based on a posts by Mark Ballard published in January 2012 who initially argued that Microsoft hustled UK retreat on open standards, says leaked report but then went on to suggest that Hope shines through crack in lid of open standards coffin. This latter post described how “An informal public consultation [PDF format] meanwhile came out resoundingly in favour of open standards – giving the Cabinet Office a second mandate for its policy“.

 I commented on the Government’s informal consultation in a post entitled “UK Government Will Impose Compulsory Open Standards”. In that post I described how fundamentally flawed the survey was: for example as can be seen in a question on proposed Web service request delivery standards, SOAP v1.1 and v 1.2 were given as options but despite the form inviting alternatives, it was only possible to add a few words. As I concluded in the post

sadly I see nothing to indicate that the government has an understanding of the implications of any decisions that may be taken as a result of this flawed information-gathering exercise.

The report on the survey acknowledged the survey’s many deficiencies with “Around a quarter of the additional comments were critical of the survey, especially the content and its structure, ease of handling and the time it took to complete“. In its analysis of 970 responses (which include responses to the various sections from me) the report (in a page which, strangely, seems to be scanned and therefore can’t be copied as text) states that “issues were raised regarding the difficulties in implementing an open standards approach … A please was also made for Government not to impose regulatory constraints or red tape that would make it difficult for suppliers to comply, in particular smaller SMEs“. The so-called UK Government betrayal of open standards seems hardly to be due to lobbying by Microsoft but a recognition of the fundamentally flawed survey methodology which, ironically, seemed to regard Microsoft’s RTF format as an open standard but has no place for RSS (in any of its guises) which, whilst not recognised by a formal standards body (unlike Atom) is not a proprietary standard and is widely used on a global basis.

Openness in One Country?

Is it desirable to mandate a particular ideology (a set of ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations and actions), such as an open standards ideology? Back in 2003 myself, Alastair Dunning, Marieke Guy and Lawrie Phipps wrote a paper entitled Ideology Or Pragmatism? Open Standards And Cultural Heritage Web Sites in which we highlighted risks of a top-down imposition of standards, particularly at a time of innovation. We developed these ideas further in papers on “A Standards Framework For Digital Library Programmes” , “A Contextual Framework For Standards“, “Addressing The Limitations Of Open Standards” and “What Does Openness Mean To The Museum Community?“.

In January 2010 JISC CETIS organised a “Future of Interoperability Standards” meeting. The reports on the meeting included the following comments:

  • The second day attracted more people than expected: the good news is that quite a few people seem to care about the future of interoperability standards. The bad news is that the day was organized because of the feeling of dissatisfaction with how standardization of learning technologies is taking place. … the standardization process is far from optimal: it is slow, doesn’t always lead to results, or at least not always to results that matter to folks outside of these meetings” Published on Erik Duval’s blog.
  • .. it is generally agreed that the development and adoption of specifications and standards is not a simple and straightforward process …” Meeting report by Li Yuan [PDF format].
In addition, in his position paper Tore Hoel argued that:

… the interoperability standards in the LET domain failed miserably. Second, the ICT developed more to the benefit of Learning, Education and Training than anybody could dream of. All of sudden, anybody (well, so we claim) can do almost anything with technology to support what they want in learning, e.g., finding information, expressing views from different perspectives, building communities, etc. Who asks any more for standards? Well, the enduser shouldn’t anyway, but then the ones that should ask for LET standards are not very enthusiastic either!

It seems that whilst journalists and policy makers may welcome the certainties provided by commitments to open standards, experts in the field continue to have reservations. Experts who are well-versed in the history of mandating standards within the higher education sector may recall the difficulties this caused when OSI networking standards were mandated, and Coloured Book software was developed to provide a migration path to full use of the OSI network stack. However an alternative set of standards, not developed by ISO, a formal international standards body, but by an organisation called IETF which developed RFCs (Requests for Comments) started to become popular and eventually user pressure led to an embarrassing (and no doubt costly) move away from OSI standards and an adoption of TCP/IP standards. There is clearly a need to avoid repeating such mistakes!

And yet whilst I continue to warn against premature mandation of open standards, the value of ‘standards’ (such as RSS) which may not be endorsed by an open standards body and the benefits which can be gained by use of design principles (such as REST) rather than open standards (such as the Web Services stack) I have previously given by support for research council’s mandates for open access. Is there not an inconsistency in these views?

For me, the difference is in prioritising the users’ perspectives. Open access can facilitate ease of access to resources by end users. As Ross Mounce pointed out in his guest blog post on Open Access to Science for Everyone:

it is not just academics who benefit from access to scientific literature … There are a huge number and variety of people that would benefit from legally unrestricted, free, Open Access to scientific publications e.g. patients, translators, artists, journalists, teachers and retired academics“.

But the withdrawal of open standards, such as RSS, which are not endorsed by an open standards or open standards, such as the MP3 audio format, which are encumbered by patent which makes it difficult for them to be used in an open source environment, will cause problems for the end user.

Another difference is that policies on open access are primarily about business models for institutions, publishers and funders, rather than technical issues. In contrast policies on open standards will be influenced by marketplace considerations across a variety of sectors (e.g. software vendors, hardware vendors, mobile phone vendors, media companies, etc.) and will affects a much wider group of stakeholders, including academics, researchers and students as consumers and individuals as well as within their place of work or study.

We can benefit from open practices. But when Engels asked “”Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” we saw from Stalin’s doctrine of Socialism in One Country of the dangers of such approaches. If we want the government to support open standards across our country, we need to ensure that the accompanying policies our flexible enough to embrace user needs and the complexities of the market place. And if this means that users will want to listen to podcasts produced by central and local government and other public sector bodies on their iPods, we should allow them to do so, even if this means continued support for RSS and MP3.

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2 Responses to “Openness in One Country”

  1. […] networks supporters of identi.ca and Diaspora claim these services will provide. But can we build Openness in one country or might Blackberry BBM users benefit from moving to a more open cross-platform solution which has […]

  2. […] work in supporting open practices within the UK higher and further education sector which includes a series of guest blog posts which were published in March-April on the UK Web Focus […]

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