Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why governments rarely create data standards

As someone who has been involved in a variety of standards initiatives, I'm amused when the suggestion is raised that the federal government create the standard. The reasoning often goes something like this: "If the federal government produced the standard, the costs of developing and maintaining the standard would be absorbed by taxpayers, and the standard would be legitimized and maybe even required by government regulation."

Well it doesn't work like that. Aside from the show-stopping law that severely limits the U.S. government from creating data standards, there are practical reasons for the government to demure.

First, most data standards fail. They are either never finished, or they are immediately ignored by the intended user community, or they are replaced by competing standards that cover the same data domain, or they eventually become so obsolete that they are abandoned. There's very little reason for the government to become embroiled in efforts that typically fail.

Second, standards often impose significant implementation costs on the user community. As discussed in earlier blogs, standards can be encumbered by intellectual property, requiring users to pay license fees or patent royalties for the uses of the standard. Also, the standard may benefit some users and hurt others. If a standard benefits the members of the committee that created the standard at the expense of members of the user community who were excluded from the standards development process, lawsuits from allegedly injured users may result. SDOs are aware that, unless their standards are created fairly, the SDO (and its entity members) may be vulnerable to prosecution under the RICO Act.

Why would the government want to get involved in this kind of mess?

As discussed in a prior blog, there are instances when the functionality of standards can be achieved with specifications. The flexibility and freedom of specifications reduces many of the problems inherent in standards. Methods for developing specifications as an alternate to standards, have been described in a draft white paper and will be will be the subject of future blogs.

-Jules Berman

Science is not a collection of facts. Science is what facts teach us; what we can learn about our universe, and ourselves, by deductive thinking. From observations of the night sky, made without the aid of telescopes, we can deduce that the universe is expanding, that the universe is not infinitely old, and why black holes exist. Without resorting to experimentation or mathematical analysis, we can deduce that gravity is a curvature in space-time, that the particles that compose light have no mass, that there is a theoretical limit to the number of different elements in the universe, and that the earth is billions of years old. Likewise, simple observations on animals tell us much about the migration of continents, the evolutionary relationships among classes of animals, why the nuclei of cells contain our genetic material, why certain animals are long-lived, why the gestation period of humans is 9 months, and why some diseases are rare and other diseases are common. In “Armchair Science”, the reader is confronted with 129 scientific mysteries, in cosmology, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Beginning with simple observations, step-by-step analyses guide the reader toward solutions that are sometimes startling, and always entertaining. “Armchair Science” is written for general readers who are curious about science, and who want to sharpen their deductive skills.