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Toward an Open ICT Standard Initiative

Web Foundation · March 18, 2009

The issues technologists and policy makers face today with Open ICT Standardization (Information and Communications Technologies) are similar to the issues W3C went through about 12 years ago when we started managing large initiatives cutting across several fields of expertise, like the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative for people with disabilities): missing definitions and tools which could only come from a missing framework.

In this paper, I’ll remind people of how things developed (process-wise) last century in the W3C/WAI domain, a clearly mixed technology and policy area (as for the Open Standards debate), we’ll look at the community reaction at that time, and what we have learned from that experience that could be re-used on the organisational side to help clarify and adopt an Open ICT Standardization model that suits all stakeholders.

At the end of 1996, W3C was a couple of years old, HTML, HTTP and URL were the hot buttons on our screen, and several guidelines to make HTML Web pages accessible were available and more or less in use on the net. W3C had a couple of pages listing them in no particular order or kind, and in addition to worried end-users experimenting more and more difficulties accessing the net (which was becoming less and less textual), page designers were complaining too that even though they really wanted to create cool pages for everybody without barriers, including blind users for instance, they couldn’t, given the lack of technical directives for the Web at large, and the divergence of individual initiatives.

So W3C, with both private and public funding support) created the WAI as a community effort. We got in touch with all the known leaders in the disability/net accessibility field, and they all agreed to play the Consortium’s standard game, with its overhead and constraints, starting with giving up their own guidelines editing authority. Those pionners and more to join our forces “became” the W3C/WAI community, while keeping their own independence and their own mission. There was little talk about making legislation out of our work (this happened later on), we were just looking for an agreement for ourselves, the Web designers, authors and users.

A bit more than a decade later, I won’t say the Web accessibility issue is solved, far from that, but we now have a real market/pool of Web accessibility specialists, and some solid technical specifications (like the recent WCAG 2.0) and tools, and slowly but certainly, the fundamental principle of separation of structure, content and form/style for electronic communications is making its way in everybody’s mind (and not just with the accessibility specialists: the goal is always mainstream adoption). Dare I say, we also have a leadership, a gathering place, the W3CWAI domain, where new problems can be addressed as technologies and usages evolve. Enough commercial!

The same context holds for Open Standards adoption today.

We have experts in all areas of standardization, and they all share the same goal: help humanity to get better connected, in a healthy ICT ecosystem, and more importantly, the same platform for everyone: gov, citizen, business, etc.

We also have, like WAI at the beginning, a plethora of guidelines and definitions, touching various grounds, and both the new users (the large buyers of technologies like governments or big non-ICT industries) and the designers (the programmers and the ICT vendors, those have changed too: lots of newcomers, much larger population) are left without a clear set of authoritative guidelines as to how to implement a good open ICT system. That’s not saying that they don’t do it, but it doesn’t scale when they all do it a bit differently (eg, one group will put the emphasis on the IPR regime, the other to the Due Process, a third on the Implementation support, another on Vendor neutrality, etc).

WAI as an example

What we have learned from WAI and W3C is that we need to look at the problem from an organisational point of view, and move forward in equally important parallel tracks, each having its own charter, scope, commitment timing from participants, sponsors, etc.

I can count at least six such tracks (I’ll mention the WAI group equivalent each time, as I think it provides a good framework):

  • a track describing what is an open ICT ecosystem (WCAG level, the Web content
    guidelines, forming the basis for the rest).
  • a track describing how to implement it (eg, including process, tools, education, similar to the UUAG, the guidelines for developing WAI compatible browser).
  • a track describing how to produce/mandate open standards (eg, procurement, technical references templates, similar the WAI authoring tools guidelines).
  • a track to promote it (similar to the WAI EO group, with a more bottom-up grassroot approach)
  • a track to evaluate it (WAI Evaluation tools group).
  • a track to research this field (coordinating with standardization research for future trends, blue sky scenario, etc).
  • and there must be an overall coordination group for all those tracks (WAI Coordination group) and an interest group for open discussions with no commitment.

As for WAI in its early days, chaos is mostly generated by the fact that the expertise from the various expert communities is cutting these groups horizontally, while each group eventually need a separate set of deliverables, talking to a different audience. This calls for a special attention to the scope of each groups early on (and of course adopting a very inclusive philosophy: invite whoever is not happy outside to come inside the house and fix the light themselves).

As you can guess, this is not a simple project and a challenge to organize such a community effectively, much more than for WAI in fact, since all the pre-existing expert communities are much more visible today in the new political debate than the accessibility experts from academia we dealt with years ago, and as a result, openess experts feel more attached to their own ideas.

But there’s hope. Lots of groups are being created, with a lot of really smart people in them, which is an indication of some unification coming up (you can unite if you’re alone). To name a few, the United Nations IGF DCOS group is looking at some definition and procurement issues. The industry, eg, IBM, is also moving forward with discussion fora and targeted programs, as they realize the importance of a sound open policy platform for their business to florish even more in the years to come (big markets being opened in Asia, India, etc). ISOC has also a solid team of Internet policy analysts.

The W3C eGov activity is also a very good step in the right direction, using the W3C inclusive process and looking at important use cases and specific themes (like Participative governments, Open Data, Identity Management, etc). They are dozens of separate eGov groups besides W3C‘s, and so a lot of liaising going on in this field (where Open Standards is an important component).

I certainly hope that our new Web Foundation will play an important role in the future of such a project (once the foundation is created and running!). Indeed, the Web Foundation has in its mission to support the promotion of Open Web Standards, which is a big piece on today’s ICT open standard landscape (but not the only one, there’s the Internet itself, the media industry, the mobile layers, etc).

I think that the year 2009 will see some important development in the Open ICT Standard area. They are just too many individuals with good will (a will that goes beyond their self interest or fame) working in the field.

In 20 years of Open ICT Standard development (in the area of Graphics, Unix, Desktop, Internet, Web) the overall lesson that we learned is that thousands of people can happily collaborate and share private knowledge to create blue-print specifications of any kind, for the benefit of all, you just have to support and help them cook together in the same large kitchen, and tell them they will have their own meals for dinner that night.

More seriously, we’ll all in this together, we have the experts, the implementors, the producers, and what we need now is a sound framework roadmap to move together full speed in parallel coordinated tracks, to give this Open Standard field the critical mass it needs for full adoption. ICT done right is an accelerator of social and scientific progress, and progress saves lives, it’s as simple as that.

Ref: 1997 WAI original project proposal.

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