What is Interoperability?
Within the European Interoperability Framework [EIF-V1], Interoperability was defined as “The ability of information and communication technology (ICT) systems and of the business processes they support to exchange data and to enable the sharing of information and knowledge.” In the Draft document as basis for the EIF v2 [EIF-DraftBasisV2] this definition has been reworked into a more comprehensive one "the ability of disparate and diverse organizations to interact towards mutually beneficial and agreed common objectives, involving the sharing of information and knowledge between the organisations via the business processes they support, by means of the exchange of data between their respective information and communication technology (ICT) systems."
For the “United Nations e-Government Survey 2008 From e-Government to Connected Governance” [UN-Survey] means “the ability of government organizations to share and integrate information by using common standards.”
The delivery of eGoverment services typically involves the interaction between actors, citizens, business and administrations, in a scenario of large diversity, not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of how the relationships and the processes are organized and of how the necessary data and information are structured and handled. The following types of interaction cover most of eGovernment services:
Direct interaction between citizens or business with Public Administrations.
Interaction and exchange of data among Public Administrations (Local, Regional, Central, supra-national or international) and other organizations (other public entities, public universities, etc...). It is common in governmental processes that two or more public organizations share data while delivering a given service.
Interoperability is a relevant requirement which has been scaling steps in the political agenda in recent years. In the European Union for instance several policy documents and acts refer to interoperability, like the COM(2006) 45 final.
The achievement of interoperability requires a global approach which should take into account issues like types of interactions, dimensions of interoperability (organizational, semantic, technical, in time), the interoperability chain, standards, common infrastructures and services and conditions for share, re-use and collaborate.
The dimensions of interoperability:
Organizational Interoperability refers to the collaboration between entities in the development, deployment and delivery of eGovernment services, and to the interaction between services, and supporting processes, including also agreements or similar formal instruments about service levels, the use of common services, security or other quality aspects.
Semantic Interoperability enables organisations to process information from external or secondary sources in a meaningful manner. The achievement of semantic interoperability may require supporting instruments that serve for collaboration,sharing and re-use of information artefacts also called 'semantic assets', like SEMIC.EU - The Semantic Interoperability Centre Europe [SEMIC].
Technical Interoperability refers to the interaction of technological systems.
Interoperability in time refers to the interaction among elements that correspond to various technological waves. It is particularly relevant in relation to the preservation and access to information on electronic media along the time.
The interoperability chain. Interoperability behaves like a chain when systems and services are deployed across boudaries of entities or governments; there is a succession of interconnected elements, in a rather dynamic way, through interfaces and with projection to the interoperability dimensions. Interoperability may break at the weakest point elements individually adequate are deficiently joined. The delivery of complex services requires interoperability between all the links of the chain, end to end, including back-office and front-office environments. The interoperability chain might include basic links like infrastructures and associated services; data models and data integration; systems and services integration; and secure integrated multi-channel access with accessibility; together with some transversal aspects.
Standards are applicable in the dimensions of interoperability, they are used in common infrastructures and services, and they are used in certain links of the interoperability chain. The use of open standards allows that the actors providing and receiving eGovernment services may take part using their preferred technological choices. Governments are taking into account open standards in their policies and interoperability frameworks and in some cases, like the Netherlands for instance, are developing coherent strategies towards openness [NL-OSOSS].
Common infrastructures and services propagate interoperability producing economies of scale and using synergies that stem from cooperative work in similar areas of action and respecting the subsidiarity of the participating entities in the provision of complex services. They offer integrating solutions that ensure interoperability in the dominion of their implementation with the rest of users, putting the focus on the corresponding interfaces. They facilitate the development of new services, as well as the interoperability of the existing ones.
Share, re-use and collaborate. The voice 'sharing' is present in the interoperability definition mentioned above; together with re-use, both of them are important for interoperability. The terms 'share' and 're-use' are connected, for instance, with the corresponding policy in the European Union shaped in the Action plan on electronic administration i2010 [i2010]. The openness approach benefits interoperability and it is a condition that favours sharing and reusing. Putting in practice the sharing approach may require the support of platforms like OSOR.eu - Open Source Observatory and Repository [OSOR] and the application by governments of adequate licensing conditions, as in the case of the EUPL [EUPL].
What Public Policy Outcomes are related to interoperability.
Interoperability policies developed by governments generally address the following goals:
Improve the cooperation of government services with the aim of delivering better integrated services in a more quick and flexible way.
Improve efficiency and effectiveness driving to the reduction of costs.
Making life easier to the citizen by means of offering more choice and reducing the administrative burden.
This outcomes drive to benefits which are described in the following paragraphs.
What Are the Main Benefits of Interoperability?
Interoperability offers important benefits to governments, to business and industry and to citizens. Within [EIF-DraftBasisV2] there is a whole section on this question which is helpful to identify in summary the main benefits:
Organizational coherence and integration. Interoperability is a means towards more coherent and integrated operation for the overall public administration domain. The current stovepipe organization of public institutions prevents the horizontal movement of information and allows only vertical flows according to the bureaucratic paradigm (command-report). Cross-agency interoperability makes the horizontal flow of information feasible and allows better communication and coordination amongst separate agencies.
Coordination and cooperation. It facilitates better coordination and cooperation of government services enabling the development, aggregation, deployment and delivery of complex services.
Technological choices. It facilitates the creation of scenarios where actors participate in egovernment services using their preferred technological choices.
It contributes to the reduction of administrative burden.
It contributes to the reduction of ICT costs enabling a more efficient use of citizen´s taxes because interoperability facilitates the re-use of data, the speed-up of services and supporting services development and deployment, the integration of services and the flow of data.
It makes life easier for the citizen since interoperability is the key for the delivery of citizen centric services delivered through a multi-channel approach: reduces the burden on the citizen to request and present documents from different administrative services, speeds up decisions by government services resulting in higher quality and added value from the citizen´s perspective.
Increased multi-channel delivery. It facilitates the deployment of multi-channel delivery of government services.
How Can Interoperability Be Achieved?
Interoperability is by its own nature a joint effort. Sharing information requires sharing a set of common principles among all participants. The best way to achieve interoperability is through standardization.
It is of paramount importance to use open standards where available – for instance, use XML and related standards (xml schema, etc.) when / if possible, as opposed to proprietary formats. According to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School [Roadmap Open ICT], a standard is considered to be open if:
cannot be controlled by any single person or entity with any vested interests;
evolved and managed in a transparent process open to all interested parties;
platform independent, vendor neutral and usable for multiple implementations;
openly published (including availability of specifications and supporting material);
available royalty free or at minimal cost, with other restrictions (such as field of use and defensive suspension) offered on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms; and
approved through due process by rough consensus among participants.
The workload to select standards for eGovernment services may be considerable and in fact all the governments that maintain lists of standards for their interoperability frameworks are carrying out similar tasks. That's why the IDABC Programme of the European Union started on the proposal of Denmark the work to develop a Common Assessment Method of Standards and Specifications, CAMSS [CAMSS]. This method has been elaborated on the basis of commonalities of existing practices in some European countries in relation to the assessment of standards for interoperability frameworks with the aim to facilitate this task and share the results. CAMSS identifies several criteria such as the adequation of the standard to the required function, its potential in terms of stability, scalability and others, the degree of openness and the market conditions.
It is essential that open standards be compatible with a variety of licensing and development models, including open source. Whenever possible, Open Source Solutions should be evaluated and considered an option along with proprietary alternatives.
Government Interoperability Frameworks
Though it is possible to start by means of bilateral approaches, greater value usually lies in multi-lateral solutions. This principle sets the ground for the creation of a Government Interoperability Framework (GIF).
A GIF is an instrument shared by different Governmental Organizations that provides a global approach to interoperability and which enables them to interact with each other, share information and business processes and cooperate for the delivery of eGovernment services. A GIF usually deals with the following:
Legal status, scope, policies, organization, concepts, vocabulary, guidelines, practices, recommendations, compliance and governance issues.
Interoperability dimensions and associated principles and relevant elements such as standards, common infrastructures and services, conditions for re-use and sharing and other possible aspects.
There a wide number of initiatives in this area:
European Interoperability Framework. Pursues the interoperability of services and systems between public administrations and the public (citizens, businesses) at a pan-European level [EIF-V1], [EIF-DraftBasisV2].
What Are the Main Issues?
Interoperability presents a series of issues that need to be taken into account.
Standards is a rather complex issue which might require a longer discussion outside the scope of this document.
There is a wide number of standardization bodies producing plenty of standards producing plenty of standards, using this term loosely here, because we should talk about 'technical specifications'.
The definitions included in Directive 2004/18/EC may be useful:
"technical specification" means a specification in a document defining the required characteristics of a product or a service, such as quality levels, environmental performance levels, design for all requirements (including accessibility for disabled persons) and conformity assessment, performance, use of the product, safety or dimensions, including requirements relevant to the product as regards the name under which the product is sold, terminology, symbols, testing and test methods, packaging, marking and labelling, user instructions, production processes and methods and conformity assessment procedures.
“standard” means “a technical specification approved by a recognized standardization body ...”
Therefore, the term 'standard' is usually applied to specifications produced by international or national legally recognized standardization bodies such as ISO, ITU, ETSI, CEN and others. These kind of specifications have a legal recognition with implications in the applicable law as it happens, for instance, in the case of the European Union with Directive 98/34/EC and Directive 2004/18/EC.
Anything else are specifications which may come from stakeholder forums or industry consortia such as W3C, OASIS, IETF, ... which are, in fact, producing a main part of specifications (or 'standards' loosely speaking) for information society in general an for eGovernment in particular. This being a reality that should be taken into account by governments.
Having said that, as [EIF-DraftBasisV2] states “Openness of standards or technical specifications is important for public administrations because of its relationship with interoperability, freedom and choice”.
In relation to this statement “W3C primarily pursues its mission through the creation of Web standards and guidelines...In order for the Web to reach its full potential, the most fundamental Web technologies must be compatible with one another and allow any hardware and software used to access the Web to work together. W3C refers to this goal as “Web interoperability.” By publishing open (non-proprietary) standards for Web languages and protocols, W3C seeks to avoid market fragmentation and thus Web fragmentation.” [W3C-Overview]
selection of standards for eGovernment services and interoperability
frameworks presents several issues which deserve to be pointed out: Legal
frameworks, as in the case of the European Union, may introduce a
degree of complexity because of distinction between standards coming
from national, EU or international standardization bodies (CEN,
CENELEC, ETSI, ISO, …) and those coming from other for a or
industry consortia (W3C, OASIS, IETF,...). It results also that the
core of standards for eGovernment services may be coming from this
second group. To sort this out that's why the terms 'standards' and
'specifications' are used in this environment.
The selection of standards for eGovernment services and interoperability frameworks may be a considerable task as discussed above when explaining the CAMSS method.
How to structure standards for interoperability as discussed in the CEN/ISSS Draft Report of the Project Team of the CEN/ISSS eGovernment Focus Group on the eGovernment Standards Roadmap [CEN-Report].
Legal frameworks usually establish privacy and data protection obligations for governments and institutions that are entrusted with the administration of public services and the exchange of information about citizen's and business. The exchage of this kind of information requires conformity with the applicable legal framework and securit policies and requirements. Following [EIF-DraftBasisV2] citizens and business require a sufficient level of guarantees regarding their privacy and that their fundamental rights are preserved. “From the user perspective, functions associated with security (identification, authentic ation, authorisation, integrity, non -repudiation, confidentiality, etc.) should have a maximum level of transparency, involve a minimum of effort and provide the proper level of security.”
Security, in close relation with privacy, is also a transversal question. Being a quite difficult issue, it is important that required levels of security are in place in the different areas: data access, communications, etc. providing equivalent safeguards to non-interoperable scenarios.
The semantics of the information must be agreed beforehand, so all exchanging parties have a common understanding of the meaning of the data exchanged. At the international level, this can be a complex topic since some legal concepts may differ from one country to the other. The final goal is to be able to interpret data consistently across the different organizations and platforms involved in the data exchange.
Interoperability may require changes in current legislation, so this needs to be addressed as well.
In general and historically, public agencies have developed a culture that does not promote cross-agency sharing. In many cases, agencies are reluctant to change existing processes, open data and services to external parties and re-negotiate their way of operation with external parties, who owns and controls what, in the new environment that usually appears after the execution of an interoperability project that links together two or more agencies.
Common Assessment Method of Standards and Specifications http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/7407/5644
CEN/ISSS Draft Report of the Project Team of the CEN/ISSS eGovernment Focus Group on the eGovernment Standards Roadmap http://www.egovpt.org/fg/Report
Directive 98/34/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 June 1998 laying down a procedure for the provision of information in the field of technical standards and regulations and Directive 98/48/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 July 1998 amending Directive 98/34/EC laying down a procedure for the provision of information in the field of technical standards and regulations http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/standards_policy/vademecum/doc/98_34_ec_consolidated_version.pdf
Directive 2004/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 March 2004 on the coordination of procedures for the award of public works contracts, public supply contracts and public service contracts http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32004L0018:EN:NOT
European Interoperability Framework (EIF) http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/3473 http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/2319
Draft Document as basis for EIF v2 http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/servlets/Doc?id=31597
Action plan on electronic administration i2010 http://europa.eu/scadplus/leg/en/lvb/l24226j.htm
Belgian Government Interoperability Framework http://www.belgif.be/index.php/Main_Page
OIO Architecture Framework http://en.itst.dk/architecture-and-standards
Estonian IT Interoperability Framework http://www.e-gif.gov.gr/Portals/0/Estonian%20IT%20Interoperability%20Framework.pdf
Standards and Architectures for eGovernment Applications (English) http://www.kbst.bund.de/saga http://www.e-gif.gov.gr/Portals/0/standards-and-Architectures-for--Government-applications-version-3_0-pdf.pdf
Towards a Dutch Interoperability Framework – Recommendations to the Forum Standaardisatie http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR552
NZ eGovernment Interoperability Framework http://www.e.govt.nz/standards/e-gif
eGIF- e-Government Interoperability Framework http://www.govtalk.gov.uk/schemasstandards/egif.asp
The Netherlands in Open Connection – An action plan for the use of Open Standards and Open Source Software http://appz.ez.nl/publicaties/pdfs/07ET15.pdf
OSOR.eu - Open Source Observatory and Repository http://www.osor.eu/
[Roadmap Open ICT]
Roadmap of Open ICT ecosystems http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/epolicy/roadmap.pdf
SEMIC.EU - The Semantic Interoperability Centre Europe http://www.semic.eu/semic/
United Nations e-Government Survey 2008 From e-Government to Connected Governance http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/UN/UNPAN028607.pdf
W3C Overview http://www.w3.org/Consortium/Overview