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XML standards key in government – Steve Pepper

By   |  June 17, 2008

As the representative for Norway in the recent OOXML ratification process, Steve Pepper has become an outspoken critic of the IEC/ISO process. Pepper is also a passionate advocate of XML, open standards and Topic Maps. Here Pepper, who is in South Africa for the XML in Government workshop, speaks to Tectonic about what happened in Norway, Topic Maps and why open standards are important for governments.

Why are open standards, and XML, important to governments?

Because they protect the value of information and reduce the cost of maintaining it. Because they make it possible to re-use information across different systems, without the need for re-keying or costly conversions. Because they promote vendor independence, allowing users to freely choose whatever software suits them best. And because they guarantee longevity of information – that documents will still be readable many years from now.

Microsoft has announced it will support ODF in future Word releases. Do you believe this is an indication that the company is preparing to embrace open standards?

The announcement of support for ODF is a big step in the right direction and we should applaud it. But I don’t see it as an indication that Microsoft is really embracing open standards. After all, it’s not more than two or three months since people in Microsoft were telling us that they would never implement direct support for ODF. The decision was forced upon them by users and it is unlikely that it would have happened without the protests against the OOXML process.

I’m not saying that there are no people in Microsoft who believe in open standards. There are. But there are also others who have a more cynical attitude. Time will tell which of these will emerge victorious. The real key to moving Microsoft in the right direction is to keep up the pressure from users – especially big users like national governments.

You represented Norway during the OOXML process at ISO/IEC. You were unhappy with the process and Norway’s decision to vote in favour of OOXML as an ISO standard. Can you explain what your main concerns around this process were?

What happened in Norway was that the national standards organisation flouted the overwhelming opinion of its technical experts and changed the Norwegian vote from No to Yes. It turned out that Standard Norway has no procedure for resolving situations in which there is no consensus, so they simply made the rules up as they went along. At the end of the day, the decision to vote Yes was taken by a single person, the Vice President of Standard Norway, someone with no technical expertise but plenty of connections with the central ISO bureaucracy. It seems that he and his friends wanted control of OOXML, irrespective of how bad it was, and the interests of the bureaucrats won out against those of the users.

The Norwegian affair was a scandal and we are still pursuing it. We haven’t given up hope of changing the vote back to No, and we hope people who experienced similar travesties in other countries will do the same.

While in South Africa you will be talking about XML Topic Maps. Can you explain what these are?

Topic Maps is an open standard that complements XML by addressing what we call the “findability problem”. Its main purpose is to help organise information in such a way that users can find what they are looking for. It does this by focusing on the subjects that the information is about. Using Topic Maps you create an interconnected network of topics and associations that capture the core knowledge of whatever domain the information covers. This network is then used to index the content and to provide human-friendly navigation paths through the mass of information. It’s kind of like a back-of-book index on steroids, optimised for digital information.

Most content management and web delivery systems used today employ hierarchically organised folders to classify and organise content. But that approach doesn’t scale, and it doesn’t really fit the real world or the way people think. Topic Maps provides an alternative that is much more natural and much more powerful.

How would Topic Maps assist in government delivery?

First of all by making it possible to create web sites and portals that are easier to use and maintain. Web sites that use Topic Maps as their underlying information architecture have intuitive, subject-centric navigational interfaces based on associative rather than hierarchical structures. Those interfaces really reflect the way people think: They are more user-friendly and they make it easier for users to find what they are looking for.

Secondly, Topic Maps has built-in support for multiple languages – a feature of enormous value in a country with 11 official languages.

Thirdly, Topic Maps has a unique feature that you don’t find anywhere else: the ability to perform merging. This feature has tremendous potential in terms of aggregating information from different sources in a meaningful way – which is exactly what needs to happen for efficient government delivery.

Finally, the approach taken to solving the findability problem – capturing subjects and their interrelationships – results in knowledge structures that can be used for other purposes, not least in the field of knowledge management, another area of great importance in government, especially in the emerging economies.

In short, Topic Maps provides functionality that goes beyond XML. XML helps solves problems of interchange, re-use and data longevity. Topic Maps addresses findability and knowledge management. The two complement each other. If you only adopt the one and not the other, you only get half the benefit.

But for me, Topic Maps is really about giving people the ability to harness their knowledge, individually and collectively, and use it in pursuit of their goals. For those of us who want to create a more equitable society, it can be a very powerful weapon indeed.

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