Interoperability or how to connect organizations

big data


29 January 2019

We are constantly surrounded by data. Data is immensely valuable given that it reveals aspects of society and the reality that surrounds us that we would otherwise ignore. In addition, data allows us to quantify those aspects generating knowledge.

Applying this knowledge to organizations and their services optimizes and exponentially increases the value that users and stakeholders can harness from data.

However, data is only useful if it is accurately shared and interpreted. This is where an important organizational capability, namely interoperability, comes into play.

Interoperability enables two or more entities or organizations to share data between them. This ability is essential to maximize the use of all the data generated by the organization in question and other organizations because it promotes data quality and accessibility. This also has repercussions on the amount of available data. Thus, interoperability removes barriers between organizations.

From all those barriers, the most obvious ones might be the technical. However, the issue of interoperability goes beyond this. According to the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), focused on the governance of the interoperability of public services in Europe, interoperability covers the following four layers: legal, organizational, semantic, and technical.

  • Legal: the legal layer focuses on analyzing the legislation that affects organizations. This is especially important in the international context due to the fact that while operating in different geographical areas, organizations are exposed to different types of laws that affect the data they produce. An example of this is the European Interoperability Reference Architecture (EIRA). This reference architecture is based on the Decision 2015/2240 of the European Parliament and of the Council and implements the EIF (European Interoperability Framework). Thus, it fosters the interoperability of public services in Europe by defining capabilities in the form of architectural blocks that should be incorporated by the aforementioned public services to operate across borders and sectors within different Member States of the European Union.
  • Organizational: the organizational layer analyzes a multitude of items ranging from processes to skills within different organizations. The way in which an organization defines its capabilities profoundly affects the way in which it relates to other organizations. An example corresponds to language, which creates a barrier for data exchange.
  • Semantic: the semantic layer analyzes the meaning of data for different organizations. For example, a simple reference to the number '30', without a semantic context, can refer to a multitude of things including temperature, angle, repetitions, etc. An example of a semantic interoperability element corresponds to a controlled vocabulary, which defines the meaning of different terms in a specific context and can be reused by different organizations.
  • Technical: the technical layer considers the characteristics of the technology used by different organizations and seeks compatibility between its elements. In this case, an inverse example involves poor practice in terms of interoperability, namely the vendor lock-in. This situation typically arises in technology companies when an organization becomes the customer of a vendor that develops solutions that are not interoperable with technology developed by other vendors. Thus, the customer becomes a captive of the vendor and can only acquire technology developed by it if it wants this technology to be interoperable with previously acquired technologies.

everis leads several initiatives that promote interoperability in Europe including the Common Assessment Method for Standards and Specifications (CAMSS) .

Specifically, CAMSS is an ISA² action that consists of an assessment method for standards and technical specifications in terms of interoperability. ISA² is a programme of the European Commission that supports the development of digital solutions that enable public administrations, businesses and citizens in Europe to benefit from interoperable cross-border and cross-sector public services.

Technical specifications are defined by the ISO, which is the leading standardization organization in the world as ''documents that provide requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose''. When technical specifications are promoted and adopted by a standardization organization (e.g., ISO), they become standards. An example of a standard is PDF: wherever in the world a user might be, and no matter which technology he/she is using, he/she will be able to open a PDF document in the vast majority of cases.

The purpose of standards and technical specifications is precisely to create a common framework of norms that fosters interoperability.

However, not all standards and technical specifications are equally "complete" in terms of interoperability, or fit for their use in a specific context. This is where CAMSS plays a role by providing public administrations with a tool to assess the standards and technical specifications so that they can make the optimal choice in each case. This tool is based on Regulation 1025/2012 on European standardisation  and it does not only promote interoperability in Europe, but also prevents problems such as the "vendor lock-in".

Currently, CAMSS is the main tool used by the European Commission to evaluate standards and technical specifications to be recommended for their use in public procurement throughout Europe.

Finally, CAMSS is also composed of other elements such as a library that contains all the standards and technical specifications recommended by the Member States of the European Union. Shortly, it is will also incorporate a library of technical specifications that describe the interoperability aspects of the EIRA building blocks.


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