Public access and government transparency emphasis of discussion
Workshop description: This workshop tackled the open-standards issues being faced now and those that are likely to be encountered in the future by governments, consumers and the public. It addressed portability and interoperability, which affect everything from personal identities to communications protocols, documents, multimedia, databases and hardware.
Workshop participants included: Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web Consortium, Web Foundation; Steve Mutkoski, director of standards and interoperability for Microsoft; Rishab Ghosh, Open Source Initiative board member, program leader of FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open-Source Software) UNU-MERIT, The Netherlands; Renu Budhiraja, director of e-Governance Group in the government of India’s Department of Information Technology; Sunil Abraham, director of policy for the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, India.
November 15, 2009 – The public’s right to knowledge generated by their governments was a key focus of this discussion of standards and interoperability, kicked off with an opening statement by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. “This year, in 2009, I have been asking governments to put their information online,” he said, referring to a talk he gave earlier in the year at TED (the annual Technology, Entertainment, Design conference). He said citizens deserve to have access to the valuable data being produced by and for their governments.
Berners-Lee was busy on Day One of IGF 2009. He had spoken at an earlier session on the mobile Internet, and he later delivered an opening keynote at which he whipped out his smartphone and said he was going online to Twitter to officially announce the creation of the World Wide Web Foundation.
Many democratic governments have begun to publish much more detailed and complete sets of public data online over the past year. It has been one of the hallmarks of the first year of the Obama Administration in the U.S.
Renu Budhiraja, director of e-Governance in the government of India’s Department of Information Technology, was enthusiastic about her government’s work to share knowledge.
“National policy should be based on open standards,” she said, urging that all government services should be equally accessible. “Objectives are to take a holistic view, avoid duplication of effort, build solutions that are scalable and make them replicable. The ideal is to provide a window to government for citizens to make it available in an open, accessible way.”
“We must consider citizens’ rights when we consider open standards,” said Sunil Abraham, director of policy for the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, India. He was critical of proprietary software and hardware, saying they constrain access and the rights of citizens to access information. Abraham founded Mahiti, which aims to reduce the cost and complexity of information and communication technology for the non-profit organizations and the voluntary sector by using free software. He said that in many developing countries people are not able to shift to use of free software because of practical barriers of politics and economics tied to intellectual property rules.
Steve Mutkoski, director of standards and interoperability for Microsoft, said improving the process of making government data transparent and accessible is complex, and it goes beyond challenging the royalties charged by IP owners. “Technical aspects are a very small part of the issue,” he said, ticking off examples of typical difficulties originating in political and legal realms. “The bigger issues include the ‘file cabinet mentality’ of governments, and then there are the problems with legacy software and hardware.”
Mutkoski said applications and devices for which standards have already been established also suffer from a lack of interoperability in implementation. “There are gaps in standards, ambiguities,” he said. “Not every standard comes fully baked and ready to go. Looking back at WiFi, that certainly wasn’t the case.” He said he has studied the processes behind the establishment of thousands of standards, and his work has shown that the best standards are produced in a transparent ongoing process in which they are allowed to evolve as needed.
Mutkoski noted that there many tough issues still to be addressed in the reform of public-information systems. “It’s a better approach to focus on the broader architectural framework,” he said, suggesting governments go back to square one to consider information delivery that is people-centered. “The focus should be on citizen-centric government. What if they want to use Twitter, what if they want to use Facebook to access their information? Those are things we are going to have to take into account.”
Rishab Ghosh, program leader of FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open-Source Software) at UNU-MERIT, said intellectual property laws and monopolies impact interoperability and standards and thus they impact access to knowledge. He talked enthusiastically about the smart-card system developed by the Indian government, noting it “will save billions of dollars,” and adding that with interoperability there are cost savings as well. He noted that intellectual property regulations can interfere with the delivery of information.
“Information technology is now so universal that even the poorest subsistence farmer is impacted, because the Internet is driving and providing a basis for everything that goes on today,” he said. “We are all being impacted by Internet standards. Imagine if you to go a city office in Cairo or Sharm El Sheikh and you want to register the birth of your baby or your marriage or something like that, and there’s a parking lot there and the government says your car has to be a Ford or you can’t park there. This sort of thing would never happen in other realms of technology or procurement – if it does, it is seen as corrupt practice, but in software it happens all the time. Software has a tendency toward natural monopolies, and there is also a tendency to focus on the engineering of it rather than the social effects. The choices made in the technology has an impact on millions or billions of people today… We should ensure the citizens shouldn’t have to buy software from anyone in particular to be able to get access to that data.”
– Senior segment producer, Janna Anderson
Additional reporting by Andie Diemer, Eugene Daniel,
Shelley Russell, Drew Smith and Dan Anderson