Monday, 23 May 2011

New OpenForum Europe monitoring report on EU public procurement available - 13% government IT tenders illegally specify brands

OpenForum Europe (OFE) today published a new monitoring report of public tenders. Similar to the results found in previous years there is still a high number of public tenders that illegally specifies brand names. According to OFE "13 % of a sample of tenders published in the Supplement to the Official Journal of the European Union made reference to specific trademarks or brand names".

Now, to be very clear, this figure does not accuse public procurers of following illegal practices. There is a lot of lack of knowledge prevailing as well as apparent lack of alternatives in case of lock-in situations. Yet, the report gives a good indication on issues where open and fair competition is impacted. There is only one remedy: a clear route for open procurement.

The full report is available on the OFE website. Definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The UK Open Standards Survey - moving ahead with open standards for eGovernment

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the new UK procurement policy which mandates openness and open standards for public procurement. I made very clear that the UK policy should be more clear to express that this requirement is limited to software interoperability. It is the level of formats, protocols, APIs where full openness matters. Because you wish to integrate different technologies and promote interoperability by the use of open standards which in turn provides a base for innovation. We saw this – and are still seeing this – in the internet and world wide web where open standards significantly contributed in boosting innovation.
As was to be expected the UK government is broadly criticised for the leadership they took on openness. Earlier this week h-online gave a nice overview of some of the criticism. For sure, standards bodies that do not have an option for Royalty-free licensing in their IPR policies are worried that the standards they produce won't meet the UK government's requirements. Well, we've heard and seen all this before in the debate about the EIF.
This is clearly an issue for the formal standards organisations like the European standardisation organisations (ESOs) because they do not allow a clear option for Royalty-free licensing – yet. However, the more we come into areas where a large part of innovation is in the integration of technologies it may be important to the stakeholders to have standards available as open standards under terms and conditions that allow broad and unencumbered adoption and implementation. This includes the need for implementing a standard in open source. But it is also critical for all the companies – including the many SMEs – who work on providing innovative products, solutions, services on top of the current technologies or physical layers. In other words, being able to support different IPR regimes may well be a critical element for the competitiveness of the ESOs.
But back to the UK procurement policy. Following the publication of this policy the UK government launched a public survey on open standards. Deadline for submissions is tomorrow, Friday, May 20. And the open standards definition is part for the survey which probably is what actually makes it spicy.
Now, as ever so often, I believe there is too much FUD created about it all by those who don't like to see the term open standard. My 'five cents' – or should I say pence ;-) ? – on this are:
  1. The UK government needs to be congratulated for its leadership on openness and open standards for software interoperability in the public sector.
  2. As mentioned above, the UK government should clarify that the scope of its requirement for open standards is software interoperability. This is pretty obvious from the content of the standards survey, but it might be worth saying it clearly so that confusion and irritations are being prevented.
  3. An open standards policy for software interoperability will neither prevent nor impact the use of RAND-based standards and specifications in other areas where software interoperability is not at stake.
  4. It may be worth – and helpful in the heated debate – to consider areas where open standards are not (yet) available. In this case the fall-back solution should be to use standards or specifications that are less open. This is also what the EIF proposes, by the way.
  5. And it may be worth considering that a transition period is needed in areas where no open standards or no standards at all (because proprietary technologies prevail) are used today. In this case it could be made clear that a transition phase is needed. In other words: add some element of pragmatism to the overall policy. This is probably common sense anyway, but it might help if it is written down somewhere. And no doubt, any such exceptions process needs to be very clearly and transparently documented.
And most notably, the conditions defined are not totally new, nor absurd or far off. They are met in the marketplace already today – so what's the trouble all about?
I expect that this debate about open standards and the definition very much overshadows the actual survey with the long list of standards and specifications. This is a pity because this is the actual purpose of the exercise. And it is very important that governments think about the standards they wish to recommend and use.
In this context it is also advisable that the government classifies standards differently. While it is important in some areas to mandate the use of specific standards, e.g. for achieving interoperability and ensuring a level playing field for all technology providers, in other areas it may be sufficient to recommend them. And the classification should also contain a category like “under observation”, e.g. for standards and specifications that have not yet established on the market but address a new and innovative area.
In general, a public survey on these standards might be too big a task. For giving good and valid recommendations about the individual standards and specifications a thorough level of understanding and detailed knowledge is important. For sure the public survey can give a first indication on the standards and specifications, their relevance and classification. But further detailed work including the key stakeholders will be needed for a clear, transparent and well documented procedure in coming up with the final list and classifications.
What, however, should definitely be excluded from the final standards list are proprietary technologies and formats. These are not standards and create a barrier to interoperability as well as lock-in situations.
It will be interesting to see how this is proceeding and what the final result will be. But anyway, again congratulations to the UK government for the leadership they are taking.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Interesting blog on open data

As I was saying in my previous blog post the topic of open data is gaining increasing attention with incredible speed. There is a very interesting blog available in German on the site of the online portal from the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. It covers the wide variety of topics around open data. Worth browsing through for all that understand some German.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Preparing the grounds for open data - an area that is moving with exceptional speed

Over the last two days I had the pleasure to attend a most interesting and inspiring workshop on open data. Opening up public sector information (PSI) has been identified by the European Commission as an important way to promote collaborative innovation. And since public data is stored in digital formats this is also a key action item in the Digital Agenda for Europe (DAE).

This workshop was organised jointly by ETSI and W3C within the Share-PSI initiative they both kicked off. IBM had submitted a position paper to the workshop which I had the honour to present. Both the paper and my presentation are available on the PSI website.

The workshop was impressive since it covered an unexpectedly broad spectrum on open data including a number of interesting use cases. There seems to be some focus on working with data in various contexts of urban life and on geographical data. But most notably, the speed with which PSI is gaining attendance and with which new entrepreneurs mushroom and jump on making use of public data in collaborative innovation and provide value-add offerings and services is enormous.

Governments, especially on the local level, seem sometimes to be struggling whether they should open up their data and whether this should be done without asking for fees. But the general tendency seems to be that opening up PSI needs to be seen as a kind of industrial or innovation policy which helps to promote innovation and which will lead to valuable new results beyond of what governments would normally produce. In other words: leveraging the community effect and collaborative innovation will pay back largely the cost that are required for providing the data.

Not surprisingly, my presentation was on the need of open standards and of interoperability for PSI. The internet can be prime example for PSI, as well, of how innovation can be triggered with open standards. Machine readable formats are essential so that the data can be used easily and without encumbrances. There are some standards and technologies available already today. As a next step an inventory should be produced on which standards and specifications are available, functional gaps should be identified and a requirements definition process for the standards and specifications that are to be used should be initiated.

Secondly, a coordinated, pan-European approach should be pursued including providing guidance to national and local governments so that they don't have to re-invent the wheel. Therefore I was very pleased that two speakers from the Commissions ISA programme were speaking at the workshop stressing the need for pan-European interoperability and illustrating how the SEMIC.EU platform works. In my opinion, what is needed for open data is something like a European PSI Framework that addresses all the issues at stake, be it the legal side, the technologies, the standards, etc. 
As a use case from which to draw some experience I mentioned City Forward which is about sharing data from cities and metropolitan areas and which was initiated by IBM. A number of cities world wide already contribute and a good number of results is available, as well.

In parallel to this Share-PSI initiative the Openforum Academy jointly with others initiated the Open Data Challenge which is still running. Another lighthouse initiative around open data.

The next milestone in the debate about open data / PSI is a workshop session at the upcoming Digital Agenda Assembly mid of June. The only point I missed in yesterday's workshop was developing some specific policy advice to be presented at the Digital Agenda Assembly. But perhaps this expectation might have been too high for this first broad workshop on the topic. And by the way, the winners of the Open Data Challenge will also be announced and honoured at the Digital Agenda Assembly.

And later on, in July, a large conference is organised in Marseille called the “Open Data Garage”.

All of this further illustrated the speed – and the enthusiasm – with which this relatively new area is progressing. Hey, there's something really new, important and innovative is going on here. And it's exciting to be involved and be part of it.

For those of you who wish to take a closer look at what was discussed in the Share PSI workshop - collaborative note taking was organised via Etherpad and the hashtag to look for in Twitter is #daa11psi