Interoperability, free standards and formats

Interoperability is the capacity of different information systems, possibly from different providers, to work together and share information without technical or legal boundaries. A more detailed definition of interoperability and its different scopes (organisational, semantic, technical and temporary) is available in the glossary.

Standards or norms are in place to facilitate interoperability between different products of companies in the market. When the norms are controlled by only part or some of them, this tends to lead to market domination. To prevent this phenomenon, the freedom of using and implementing standards in any form that is deemed appropriate by users and developers must be guaranteed.

Generally speaking, a standard is a rule or specification on specific engineering or technical criteria, methods, processes or practices, generally achieved via the consensus of the interested parties. Normally, rules are created by formal organisations like the ITU, ISO, IETF, W3C, OASIS, etc.

By adopting a free standard for a digital service, the administration and its end users are not limited to resorting to a specific provider and this decreases vendor lock-in; therefore, it is possible to increase the user’s options and as a result, the market is more competitive in terms of the technologies and solutions that comply with the standard.

It has been argued that a free standard is more than a mere specification. A free standard is “free” on the basis of its underlying principles and the way in which it has been developed publicly and been approved and, therefore, is accessible. It is governed by a process of collaboration and consensus. A free standard is generally based on the principle that it is available so that each user can gain access, read and implement it without royalties or costs. It has been argued that a minimum or “reasonable” fee (for example, for a standardisation organisation to ensure compliance) could be enforced, which must be reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND). However, to many this is unacceptable, as it inhibits, for example, deployments in free software.

The Barcelona City Council believes that the use of free standards:

  • Promotes interoperability and compatible integration between the multiple information systems and data series of the City Council, both internally and those interrelated with other external data and systems. Therefore, free standards are a prerequisite for technological neutrality.

  • Establishes standard rules and reduces the differences between technical specifications, creating a level playing field, which decreases obstacles to the development and provision of competitive services locally, regionally and internationally, catalysing innovation whilst reducing costs.

  • Facilitates greater synergy in terms of regional and international collaboration in the IT sector and in particular concerning the publication and exchange of data between different services and entities.

  • Guarantees that information generated digitally at a specific moment in time will be readable and reusable in the future (regardless of the programmes used to generate or read this information). Thus, open, public specifications safeguard the preservation, longevity, integrity and reuse of information without restrictions.

  • Reduces overlaps, allowing interdependent systems and entities to work together to complete or fulfil a process at a lower cost.

  • Facilitates interaction between citizens and public administrations and private entities, as no specific software provider has to be used. A company or person using software based on free standards will never be obliged to purchase competing software to exercise their right to communicate with the public administration.

  • Ensures the representation of more interests in the sector, thus ensuring continuous improvement, support, competition between providers and greater flexibility between technological options. This reduces the risk assumed by the City Council, in such a way that its users adopt the free standard specifications when the City Council’s systems are integrated with those of its providers, citizens and other partners.

  • Promotes the use of free software, as the production process consists of defining publicly available specifications. The availability of its source code also promotes an open and democratic debate in terms of the specifications, making them more robust and interoperable.

The City Council believes that the minimum characteristics for a specification and its associated documentation for them to be considered free standards are as follows:

  • The rule is adopted and shall be maintained by a non-profit organisation and its continuous development is structured around an open decision-making procedure available to all the interested parties (consensual protection of privacy in the e-communication sector or majority decision).

  • The rule has been published and the standard specifications are available free of charge or for a nominal fee. It must available for copying, distribution and use by anyone, free of charge or for a nominal fee.

  • Any intellectual or industrial property right surrounding the standard (for example, possible patents) is licensed to users free from royalties.

  • There are no restrictions on the use and reuse of the standard.

Technical, semantic and organisational interoperability is, furthermore, regulated under Spanish legislation pursuant to Royal Decree 4/2010, of 8 January, regulating the National System of Interoperability in the scope of e-Government.