Open Formats: The Importance to Be Called an Open Standard

Now in Malaga is taking place the Open Source World Conference – an international gathering that after five editions is beginning to be considered as a must within the sector.

This afternoon within the open formats session I was supposed to give a speech on standards compliance and the role of European public administrations, a paper accepted by the OSWC Technical Committee. Unfortunately I had to suddenly cancel my trip, so I wish to share some excerpts from the paper.

The meaning of understanding and the importance of open formats. The relationship between information and its representation are not well known, people often think that digital data and the information they represent are (almost) one and the same thing.There is no full awareness that, as well as in order to understand a text written in an ancient language one must first decodify it. At the same extent to use a digitalized information one must first decodify it.

We get some help in fully understanding the issue from Hofstadter, who suggests to distinguish three different levels in a “message”, according to the following definitions: “framework message”, is the message itself, and it is implicitly transmitted by the global exterior aspect of the “information carrier”. Understanding it means understanding the need of a decodification mechanism “external message”, is the information implicitly carried by the configuration of symbols and structures of the message, telling us how to decodify the internal message.Understanding it means being able to build up a proper decodification mechanism of the internal message; “internal message”, is the familiar one, the message that the sender wanted to send us.

In our context the frame work message may be exemplified by a CD carrying a file name “Beethoven Ninth.mp3”. The external message in this case might be made out of the informations that it is possible to obtain by reverse engeneering techniques from the study of other documents expressed in that same digital format. The internal message might consist of the sensations induced by the reproduced execution of the music.The “mechanism” allowing for the possibility to extract the internal message, that is the “information detector“, may be a computer carrying a given software, or any other apparatus (like a music player), but what one really needs is that the implicit information contained in the external message be made explicit by proper and detailed specifications of the format, expressed in natural language and/or by generative grammars or equivalent formalisms.Once the availability of the informations needed to build an information detector has been granted, the internal message will be freely received and understood (in this context it would not be appropriate to try further clarifications of such a naturally subjective and individual notion as that of “understanding”).

What is indeed important for the user is the possibility to detect and extract the information contained in the digital data, expressed in a given format. In order to ensure such possibility, we need open standards.

Today declarations of conformity to a file format standard is a self-certification process. In Europe the CE marking is a mandatory conformity mark on many product groups to indicate conformity with the essential health and safety requirements set out in European Directives. In short while vendors need a CE mark to sell a plug or a toy, software can be sold without any external test house which evaluates the product and its documentation. Since there is no organization that assess standards compliance, users and customers can just rely on implementors’ statements of compliance. This is definitely an open issue on open standards, and Public Administrations can play an important role, participating to Standard Setting Organizations works, as well as influencing the European market. 

It is common to think of standardization as the process of standards creation, but this view excludes those who implement the standard, those who use the implementations of the standard and what happens when standards evolve or get obsolete.As a matter of fact today every IT vendor can tell its products are compliant to a specific open standard, but it doesn’t need to proof it. If European Public Administrations won’t take part in the process to certify standards’ compliance we can easily end up buying and acquiring products that are implementing a different version of a standard, eventually affecting interoperability and communications.

Tomorrow’s data availability depends upon today’s data format.

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