Boring, boring standards

Why they matter and how we can make them work

Open standards make data easier to process and pass around. They are the backbone to good open and shared data. Standards might not seem the most enthralling of topics, but not far beneath many news headlines there’s a standards issue affecting people’s daily lives.

Take household energy prices in the UK, for example. For price competition to be effective and to keep suppliers on their toes, consumers must readily be prepared to switch suppliers. But if you try switching after you’ve had a smart meter installed, chances are you’ll have to revert to manual readings. No standard has yet been rolled out for sharing smart meter readings, meaning some suppliers can’t process data from others. So the consumer’s choice is to stick with a ‘dumb’ meter or not to switch suppliers.

Diagram illustrating open standards, from Cabinet Office’s Open Standards Principles

Of course, as consumers we shouldn’t have to care what standard sits beneath the devices we use, but suppliers and regulators have a duty to consider such matters. In the physical world we can pretty well rely on our railway carriages being built for the same gauge tracks, and bolts from one supplier fitting another supplier’s nuts. The world of data is less mature.

Standards in the public sector

At Porism our experience is mainly in English local government, where 353 councils all publish data on similar topics but in a variety of formats, often using different names for the same things.

We have seen some progress since 2000 when the Blair Government set a target for delivering services electronically. In 2002, via the Electronic Service Delivery Toolkit (esd-toolkit), we worked for the Local Government Association (LGA) to combine six lists of council services to create one unified reference — the Local Government Services List (LGSL). It now acts as the index against which much data is referenced for English council services. For example, the LGA publishes links between councils’ services and the legislation data that empowers or requires councils to deliver those services.

Along with the Open Data Institute (ODI) and three other organisations (open data services, OpenNorth and W3C) versed in open standards for data, we’re exploring where there’s a role for standards in the public sector, barriers to their adoption, and what benefits they can bring. We’re reflecting on experiences to date: what’s worked so far and where standards have failed to take hold, and drawing up a methodology for developing standards. Outputs will be freely available and inform the ODI’s work on an open infrastructure for data standards.


Whether you love data standards or object to them, we’d love to hear your comments. Here are some questions to get you thinking.

  • If standards are so useful, why should they ever be mandated rather than adopted through choice?
  • Who should produce standards and who should standardise published data?
  • Why is the early adoption of a standard so scary? Does it need to be?
  • Do you have more faith in a standard at a .gov or a .org internet domain?

You can find us on Twitter, email standards@porism.com or comment below.