European Interoperability Framework 2: New Draft

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the threat posed to open source and open standards in Europe by an imminent Digital Agenda that is being drawn up. One of the key issues there is interoperability, and what exactly that means and implies. I pointed to the worrying changes made to version 2 of the European Interoperability Framework, currently in draft form. In particular, I noted the risible paragraph where it was suggested that “closed” was part of the “openness continuum”.

Someone has kindly sent me a more recent version of that draft, and there have been some important changes (including the addition of a further section), particularly in that contentious section about openness.

Here's the old draft version of EIF verson 2:

2.10 Underlying Principle 9: Openness

Within the context of the EIF, 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.

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.

European public administrations need to decide where they wish to position themselves on this continuum with respect to the issues discussed in the EIF. The exact position may vary, on a case-by-case basis, depending on their needs, priorities, legacy, budget, market situation and a number of other factors. While there is a correlation between openness and interoperability, it is also true that interoperability can be obtained without openness, for example via homogeneity of the ICT systems, which implies that all partners use, or agree to use, the same solution to implement a European Public Service.

Recommendation 5. Public administrations should favour openness when working together to establish European Public Service while taking into account their priorities and constraints.

Here's the new one (no online link yet):

2.10 Underlying Principle 9: Openness

Within the context of the EIF, openness is the willingness of persons, organisations or other members of a community of interest to freely 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.

Interoperability involves the sharing of information and knowledge between interacting organisations, hence implies 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 may lead to gains in efficiency, while non-documented, proprietary specifications, proprietary software and the reluctance or resistance to reuse solutions, i.e. the "not invented here" syndrome, are considered closed.

Therefore, European public administrations should strive towards openness taking into account needs,priorities, legacy, budget, market situation and a number of other factors.

Recommendation 5. Public administrations should favour openness when working together to establish European Public Service while taking into account their priorities and constraints.

That's clearly an improvement on the previous version. For example, the whole ridiculous notion of an “openness continuum” has gone. And weak phrases like “Interoperability involves the sharing of information and knowledge between organisations, hence implies a certain degree of openness. There are varying degrees of openness.” have become the stronger “Interoperability involves the sharing of information and knowledge between interacting organisations, hence implies openness.”

On the down side, this remains worryingly vague and woolly. What exactly is this “openness”? It sets a far lower bar than the original EIF document, which was highly specific:

To attain interoperability in the context of pan-European eGovernment services, guidance needs to focus on open standards. The following are the minimal characteristics that a specification and its attendant documents must have in order to be considered an open 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.

It was also emphatically in favour of open source solutions:

Open Source Software (OSS) tends to use and help define open standards and publicly available specifications. OSS products are, by their nature, publicly available specifications, and the availability of their source code promotes open, democratic debate around the specifications, making them both more robust and interoperable. As such, OSS corresponds to the objectives of this Framework and should be assessed and considered favourably alongside proprietary alternatives.

The latest draft even drops what few references remain to open source in EIF 2.0. Whereas Underlying Principle 10: Reusability originally had the following paragraph:

For the specific case of Open Source Software, the European Commission has set up the Open Source Observatory and Repository (OSOR) 14 and developed the European Union Public Licence (EUPL)15 to assist, among others, public administrations to share and re-use open source software components and/or to collaborate on their development and improvement.

The nearest that we now we have:

This implies that public administrations must be willing to share with others their solutions, concepts, frameworks, specifications, tools and components. Such sharing is facilitated by the use of specifications, software and software development methods that promote collaboration and the results of which can freely be accessed, reused and shared.

Again, this is completely vague where the original version was precise.

A more positive change has been made in 5.2.1 Specifications, openness and re-use. Originally the text read:

If the principle of openness is applied in full:

All stakeholders can contribute to the elaboration of the specification and public review is organised:

The specification document is freely available for everybody to study and to share with others;

The specification can be implemented under the different software development approaches.

It is up to the creators of any particular specification to decide how open they want their specification to be.

Because of their positive effect on interoperability, the use of open specifications, characterised by the three features mentioned above, as well as sharing and re-use, have been promoted in many policy statements and are encouraged in the context of European Public Services delivery.

However, public administrations may decide to use less open specifications, especially in cases where open specifications do not meet the functional interoperability needs or the ones available are not mature and/or sufficiently supported by the market, or where all cooperating organisations already use or agree to use the same technologies.

Here's the latest draft:

If the principle of openness is applied in full:

All stakeholders have the same possibility of contributing to the elaboration of thespecification and public review thereof is organised;

The specification document is freely available for everybody to copy, distribute and use;

The specification can be freely implemented and shared under different software development approaches.

Because of their positive effect on interoperability, the use of open specifications, characterised by the three features mentioned above, as well as sharing and re-use, have been promoted in many policy statements and are encouraged in the context of European Public Services delivery.

However, public administrations may decide to use less open specifications, in case open specifications do not exist or do not meet the functional interoperability needs.

In all cases, specifications should be mature and sufficiently supported by the market except if used in the context of creating innovative solutions.

The changes are slight, but at least in the right direction.

To summarise, the latest draft is certainly better than the previous one, which was a travesty in many respects. As such, it is to be welcomed. But we should be making absolute advances with interoperability at this stage, not relative ones. The current draft is certainly one step forward from the previous one, but that was two steps back from the original, so the net effect remains negative. Frankly, that's not acceptable, and is evidence that the European Commission is backtracking in this important area. That doesn't augur well for the imminent Digital Agenda.

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