Open standards principles

16th May 2014

Just before Christmas 2013, I wrote a blog article about building open systems on Esri technology within the public sector. A recent post by Oliver Buckley makes it clear that getting decent quality Government data out to organisations and the public is at the heart of its transparency initiative. Ensuring that Government departments rigorously adhere to open standards is key.

With this in mind, I recently reviewed the Government’s Open Standards Principles against the Geospatial industry in general and Esri-based systems in particular.

Principle 1: We place the needs of our users at the heart of our standards choices

We are lucky within in the Geospatial industry. We have an international organisation, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), which maintains a list of recognised standards. Within Europe, the INSPIRE directive further refines these standards, adding, for example, an ability to define a service’s language support when working across international borders. So are these standards truly driven by user need?

Yes in part. There is no doubt that these standards are enabling citizens, businesses and delivery partners to interact with the government, exchanging appropriately formatted information using the software package of their choice (this is a direct quote from the Principle 1 guidance information). But INSPIRE was conceived several years ago, originally to aid cross-border sharing of spatial information within environmental organisations, and the OGC standards on which it is based are also long-established. It takes a long time to get de jure standards to the point of publication. Many people will agree with me that the needs of users are evolving faster than the speed that the standards can be updated.

In particular, Government has a requirement to get all sorts of spatial data out to the public, and suppliers and the developer community are using de facto standards such as GeoJSON and the Esri REST API to fill the gap. Representing the data in JSON rather than images (WMS) or XML (WFS) gives us a faster and better way of getting it in front of the public via a Web browser, and makes it easier to build services using this data. See the section on APIs in the Government Service Design Manual.

Principle 2: Our selected open standards will enable suppliers to compete on a level playing field

The OGC standards are implemented by a huge range of suppliers. The OGC website has a full list. Similarly the de facto standards I mentioned under Principle 1 are widely implemented. Where implementations differ slightly, there is a range of open-source tools for converting between formats, such as the ones Esri maintain on our github site. In my view, this is exactly what Principle 2 is meant to enshrine – the ability to easily support interoperability between suppliers, to encourage competition and to avoid lock-in with Government projects. This is really what the Government Digital Service is all about.

Organisations using ArcGIS Server to publish their data have a wide choice of standards-based end-points to allow both Esri and non-Esri applications to access the data. As well as Esri REST feature services, with one click of a checkbox you can enable WMS, WCS WMTS, WFS and KML access. Obviously we think our out-of-the-box clients are great, but we are genuinely very positive about people using other clients, or building their own.

Principle 3: Our standards choices support flexibility and change

One of the things I most admire about the ArcGIS Platform is the REST API – not just the API itself, but the fact that is so central to the platform – that Esri’s own applications use the open API to interoperate, rather than it being added on the side as an afterthought. This API allows organisations and the public to develop new applications on new platforms/operating systems/browsers as user needs develop. And they are not just limited to the platforms where we provide an SDK – working directly with the REST endpoints is easy, giving consumers of the data maximum flexibility on new operating systems and devices, as well as supporting emerging initiatives like Linked Data.

Principle 4: We adopt open standards that support sustainable cost

The guidance behind this principle explains that sustainable cost means making decisions based on total cost of ownership, and I firmly believe that using more Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) software in your solution rather than writing code is normally more sustainable, because of a reduction in complexity and because of more predictable support costs. The only time this is definitely not true is when the COTS workflows or functionality are so different from the user needs that the value of the solution is undermined.

Exit strategy should also be considered, and I think both the OGC and de facto JSON standards, in particular the wide support across both clients and servers, helps reduce risk and cost of any future migration.

Principle 5: Our decisions about standards selection are well informed

OGC and INSPIRE committees are made up of a Subject Matter Experts from geospatial vendors like Esri and from other commercial and non-commercial organisations and users of spatial data. I would like to hope they are reasonably well informed, notwithstanding my previous comments about the speed of standards development.

Principle 6: We select open standards using fair and transparent processes

Although INSPIRE standards are enshrined in UK legislation, I have listed Geospatial interoperability specifically for Digital Services as a challenge on the Cabinet Office Standards Hub. This week I attended a meeting on open standards at the AGI (mission statement: “to maximise the use of geographic information for the benefit of the citizen, good governance and commerce”). We talked about forming a UK-wide forum to debate, lobby for, encourage uptake and advise on the use of open standards. Appropriate interaction between this forum and the Cabinet Office/Departments/Local Authorities could help selection. We agreed that transparency and fairness are a fundamental requirement for such a forum.

Principle 7: We are fair and transparent in the specification and implementation of open standards

This one is really up to you. To help you understand and publish what standards your geospatial systems support, the OGC maintain a list of our compliance against their standards. If you’re using or considering user Esri software in your solution, our staff are of course available via both Technical Support or Professional Services to help you with the detail – such as where the standards are still catching up with vendor implementations, or where newly developed standards are being targeted in our future roadmap.