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Policies on Drugs, Open Standards and Web Accessibility

Posted by Brian Kelly on 2 Nov 2009

Over the weekend we’ve been hearing about the squabbles between the Government and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council, argued that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco and that it was upgraded by the Government to Class B against the council’s advice – for political reasons. In response, as described on the BCC News, the Home Secretary “Johnson defends drugs row sacking”  saying that Professor David Nutt went against a long established principle by straying into politics.

An example of a political expediency taking precedence over evidence, surely? After all, we can predict the headlines in papers such as the Daily Mail if the Advisory Council’s recommendations had been accepted by the government. 

But if we feel that evidence and the need to acknowledge the accompanying complexities should outweigh an approach based on simple slogans would such an approach also be used in the context of IT development work? 

This thought came to me earlier today after reading a tweet from Wilbert Kraan which stated

RT @PeterMcAllister: EU wants to get rid of open standards: (via @brenno) Leaked draft: #EUopenS

The accompanying blog post , headlined “EC wil af van open standaarden” begins

De Europese Commissie schrapt in stilte open standaarden voor interoperabiliteit. Het draait nog slechts om ‘open specificaties’, waarbij patenten en betaalde licenties geen taboe meer zijn.”

Friends on Twitter have responded to my request for a translation and suggest that the post on”The European Commission silently scraps interoperability standards” begins with the view that:

The EU has quietly changed its view on open standards and no longer sees patents and paid licensing as taboos”

The EU has changed its mind on open standards?  That sound intriguing! So I’ve skimmed though the “European Interoperability Framework for European Public Services (version 2.0)”  document (PDF file) – which, I should add, is clearly labelled as a work in progress.

This report is of interest to me as I recently gave a talk at the ILI 2009 conference entitled “Standards Are Like Sausages: Exploiting the Potential of Open Standards“.  In the talk I described how my early work in promoting open standards (which date back to my contributions to the eLib Standards document back in 1995) can, in retrospect, be seen to be naive. Over the years I have found myself recommending open standards, especially those developed by the W3C, which have failed to gain significant acceptance in the market place. And, just as, the Daily Mail knows it is safe to promote a zero tolerance approach to drugs to its core audience, I was also aware that promoting open standards is a safe thing to do in a public sector IT development context.  But over the years I have begun to realise that such recommendations need to be informed by evidence – and if the evidence is lacking there may be a need for a more refined approach, rather than a continuation of the “One final push” approach. 

These views also apply in the context of Web accessibility. I have argued for several years that an approach based solely on technical conformance with a set of accessibility standards, which fails to acknowledge the diversity of use cases, definitions of accessibility, limitations of relevant tools available in the market place and the resource implications of conforming with such flawed approaches, is the wrong approach to take.

In light of this I was very interested in what the EU’s draft document on the European Interoperability Framework for European Public Services had to say.

What did I find in this document about the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) which aims to promote and support the delivery:

1.5.1 The Political and Historical Context of Interoperability in the EU:: I welcome the section which acknowledges that political and historical issues have a significant role to play in enhancing the delivery of interoperable services.  

2.2 Underlying Principle 1: Subsidiarity and Proportionality. This section goes on to add that “The subsidiarity principle implies that EU decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen. In other words, the Union does not take action unless EU action is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level“. It the context of IT services, I see this as endorsing a user-focussed approach to development work, rather than the centralised imposition of solutions. Section 2.3 Underlying Principle 2: User Centricity reinforces this approach.

2.4 Underlying Principle 3: Inclusion and Accessibility. This section goes on to add that “Inclusion aims to take full advantage of opportunities offered by new technologies to overcome social and economic disadvantages and exclusion. Accessibility aims at ensuring people with disabilities and the elderly access to public services so they can experience the same service levels as all other citizens.

We then read that “Inclusion and accessibility usually encompass multichannel delivery. Traditional service delivery channels may need to co-exist with new channels established using technology, giving citizens a choice of access.” Hurray – we’re moving away from the WAI perspective that suggests that all Web resources must be universally accessible to all, to an inclusive approach which endorses a diversity of delivery channels!

2.10 Underlying Principle 9: Openness. This section goes on to add that “openness is the willingness of persons, organisations or other members of a community of interest to share knowledge and to stimulate debate within that community of interest, having as ultimate goal the advancement of knowledge and the use thereof to solve relevant problems. In that sense, openness leads to considerable gains in efficiency.” I’m pleased to see this emphasis on the benefits of openness of content and engagement endorsed in the document.

This section than states that:

Interoperability involves the sharing of information and knowledge between organisations, hence implies a certain degree of openness. There are varying degrees of openness.

Specifications, software and software development methods that promote collaboration and the results of which can freely be accessed, reused and shared are considered open and lie at one end of the spectrum while non-documented, proprietary specifications, proprietary software and the reluctance or resistance to reuse solutions, i.e. the “not invented here” syndrome, lie at the other end.

The spectrum of approaches that lies between these two extremes can be called the openness continuum.

We are seeing an appreciation of complexities and a “spectrum of approaches [to openness]” rather than a binary division which is promoted by hardliners.

2.12 Underlying Principle 11: Technological Neutrality and Adaptability. This principle leads to “Recommendation 7. Public administration should not impose any specific technological solution on citizens, businesses and other administrations wh n establishing European Public Services.” Having acknowledged the needs to be user-centric and to encourage openness, whilst recognised that there may be a spectrum of approaches which need to be taken, the document spells out the implications that specific technical solutions should not be imposed.

Interoperability levelsChapter 4 of the document introduces four Interoperability Levels, as illustrated.

Although not depicted in the diagram for me this indicates the team for the technical discussions and decisions about interoperability need to be formed within the context of political, legal, organisation, and semantic considerations. Surely self-evident when stated like this, but not when we hear mantras such as “interoperability through open standards” being promoted at a policy level which can lead to discussions taking place in which other considerations can become marginalised.

Has the  “EU quietly changed its view on open standards and no longer sees patents and paid licensing as taboos“. Or might we suggest that the “The EU is now taking a pragmatic approach to the relevance of standards in ICT development. It now feels that the technical considerations need to be placed in a wider context“?

4 Responses to “Policies on Drugs, Open Standards and Web Accessibility”

  1. Nick Sharratt said

    Very grateful for this analysis – even in early form it’s useful to see the thinking and have this in mind later when the sensationalist headlines errupt as they are liable to :)

  2. A. Rebentisch said

    First of all, it is not “the EU” but an EU IDABC document of DG Digit circulated to the member states’ administrative ICT procurement officials. The EIF2 revision process.

    The “binary approach” how you call it is not present in the discussions around the document. Of course such a document has to fully reflect administrative procurement interests. I can’t find any reasonable public interest to promote patent cartels for public standards. You find such misguided views in other directorates documents, e.g. from DG Enterprise which follow the competitiveness paradigm and promotional policies for industry. From a German conservative standpoint the core responsibility of governmental intervention in the market is enforcement of “market order”. From a procurement perspective you do never fraternise with vendors but raise your procurement power. For some parts of the Commission that is too hard to get. EU IDABC was an exception of administrative sanity.

    Here is the worst Commission document I ever came across in that respect: “Evaluation provides a forum in which public procurement officials and the supplier community can review the effectiveness of measures to promote innovation.”, “Maintaining dialogue with the supplier is important for ensuring continuing innovation during performance. [..] Moreover, supplier-buyer interaction can be viewed as a learning process for subsequent contracts.”, “If government decides to keep the IPR, it will have to pay the price for exclusive development, as the supplier can not re-use IPR. A supplier who can keep the IPR may consider it to be an investment, a building block for other projects. This would normally be reflected in a lower price for the purchaser.”, “A fair comparison of bids requires a skilful evaluation committee. New innovative solutions are especially difficult to compare. In most cases this will require a mix of experts, including lawyers and technical specialists.”, “3. INVOLVE KEY STAKEHOLDERS THROUGHOUT THE PROCESS It is important to ensure the active participation of all internal key stakeholders, throughout the procurement lifecycle.”, “Like any other buyer, government ought to identify, via the technical dialogue or by other means, what is actually available on the market, before deciding whether and what to buy.”, “Technical dialogue… gives the market the opportunity to better understand the problem to be addressed and to offer optimum solutions. To ensure transparency, any information provided”, “To ensure transparency, any information provided by government during the technical dialogue would need to be circulated to any potential bidder.”.

  3. @A. Rebentisch Thanks for the clarification of the ownership of this document – the PDF file I viewed contained no information about who had produced the document.

    From the official link to the resource you provided I have looked at some of the comments received about the report.

    I note, for example, that comments from the Open Standards Alliance (in PDF format) state that:

    The openness of standards (which neither implies nor is implied by the openness of source code, an unavoidable trend in the IT sector) is integral to the seamless interoperability among open source and non-open (mainly: proprietary) source software.
    This function can not be fulfilled by proprietary standards by definition.

    And yet PDF (and, indeed, MS Word) have until last year been proprietary formats (according to an EU definition of open standards. In these cases proprietary formats eventually became open.

    The MP3 format is encumbered by patents, as described in Wikipedia and yet is widely used. I’m pleased that the EIF document does acknowledge such complexities about the real world we live in.

    I would agree that the document you cited is a monstrosity!

  4. […] Policies on Drugs, Open Standards and Web Accessibility […]

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