The science of working together

At the launch event for Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems, the authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser gave an overview of interop and provided several relevant examples. Though they began years ago on a theoretical level (does increased interop lead to increased innovation?), interop is a deeply practical topic.

“Interop” here is short for interoperability, defined as “the ability to transfer or render useful data and other information across systems (including organizations), applications, or components.” The authors decided that this initial definition, however, could be broadened into “the science of working together” on many layers: institutional, human, data, and technological.

Though it may sound abstract, there are many good examples of how interoperability is important in daily life. Solutions to big societal problems depend on interop, said Palfrey and Gasser. They talked first about “smart cities,” which depend on sharing information: between police, firefighters, and ambulances, for example, and between various forms of transit (does your bus pass also work for the subway and the commuter rail systems?).

Next they talked about open platforms, such as Facebook, which made its API available so that anyone could build an app. However, this interconnectedness has a down side: many points of connection means more vulnerability to privacy and security breaches. (This is also true of credit cards – another example of interop – which are vulnerable to identity theft.)

Facebook is an example from the private sector, but the public sector can drive interop as well, by regulation and legislation, as Europe has done for standardized cell phone chargers.

Naturally, one of the areas in which I am most interested is that of libraries. Libraries, said Palfrey, are facing two large interop problems: preservation of knowledge over time, and the lack of an open standard for e-lending.

The first issue has to do with reformatting; over the past decade or two, data has been stored not just in print, but in a whole variety of other ways, including floppy disks, microfilm, microfiche, CDs, and on computers in a variety of formats, some of which are no longer readable because the software necessary is no longer in use. Libraries must be vigilant to make sure that the information they have is preserved in an accessible form.

The second problem is one that has been in the news more or less constantly for a few years: there is no open standard for e-lending. Instead, there are a lot of proprietary formats that are not interoperable at all (e.g. you can’t read a kindle book on a nook device). “This is crazy,” Palfrey said. “Why is this [print book] still better technology?”

I hope and trust that, in the next few years, an open standard for e-lending will develop. In an ideal world, both libraries and individuals would be able to buy and lend any e-book, which could be read on any device.

Fingers crossed.

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2 thoughts on “The science of working together

  1. This was interesting stuff, thanks for sharing! With the shift towards XML and crosswalks, methinks libraries are already living by some of the Interop principles. Mr. Palfrey is all over the place, too. Have you been following his (among others) Digital Public Library of America work http://dp.la/ ? Good stuff there, too.

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