Meritocracy in Open Standards: Vision or Mirage

Few would argue for privilege over merit in general terms and the idea of “meritocracy” is close to the heart of many in the Open Source Software (OSS) community. How far can the ideal of meritocracy be realised? Are attempts to implement meritocratic principles in the development of open standards (using “standards” to include virtually any documented set of technical conventions) visionary or beset my mirages?

What follows is a first pass at answering that rather rhetorical question. I have avoided links as I’m not trying to point fingers (and you would be wrong in thinking there are any between-the-lines references to organisations or individuals).

A meritocracy requires both a dimension of governance and a dimension of value. The latter, “value”, incorporates both the idea that something should be measurable and that there is consensus over desirable measure and its association with positive outcomes of the endeavour. In the absence of the measurable quantity that could be applied in a bureaucratic way we have a hegemony or a club. The Bullingdon Club is not a meritocracy. I suggest the following questions should be asked when considering implementing a meritocracy:

  1. Have we recognised that a meritocracy must be situated in a context? There must be some endeavour that the system of merit is supporting and the suitability of a meritocratic system can only be judged in that context. There is no universal method.
  2. Do we understand what success looks like for the endeavour? What are the positive outcomes?
  3. Is there a human behaviour or achievement that can be associated with realising the positive outcomes?
  4. Are there measures that can be associated with these behaviours or achievements?
  5. Can this/these human endeavours be dispassionately evaluated using the measures?

Clear and coherent answers can be provided to these questions for OSS endeavours focussed on fixing bugs, improving robustness, improving performance etc. The answers become rather more vague or contentious if we start to include decisions on feature-sets, architecture or user interface design. Many successful OSS efforts rely on a different approach, for example the benevolent dictator, alongside some form of meritocracy.

So: what of “meritocracy in open standards”? Posing the five questions (above), I suggest:

  1. The context is open standards development. There are differing interpretations of “open”, generally revolving around whether it is only the products that are available for use without impediment or whether participation is also “open”. It only makes sense to consider a meritocracy in the latter case so we seem to have a recognisable context. NB: the argument as to whether open process is desirable is a different one to how you might govern such a process and is not addressed here
  2. Success of the open standards endeavour is shown by sustained adoption and use. Some people may be motivated to participate in the process by ideas of public good, commercial strategy etc but realising these benefits are success factors for their participation and not of the endeavour per se. I would like to place questions of morality alongside these concerns and outside consideration of the instrument: open standards development.
  3. This is where we start running in sand inside an hourglass. Anecdotes are many but simple relationships hard to find. Some thoughtfully constructed research could help but it seems likely that there are too many interacting agents and too many exogenous factors, e.g. global finance, to condense out “simple rules”. At this point we realise that the context should be scoped more clearly: not all areas of application of open standards have the same dynamics, for example: wireless networking and information systems for education.  Previous success as a contributor to open standards may be a reasonable indicator but I think we need to look more to demonstration of steers-man skills. The steers-man (or woman) of a sail-driven vessel must consider many factors – currents, wind, wave, draught, sea-floor, etc – when steering the vessel. Similarly, in open standards development we also have many factors influencing the outcome in our complex system: technical trends, supplier attitudes (diverse), attitudes of educational institutions, government policy change, trends in end-user behaviour…
  4. Not really. We could look to measures of approval by actors in the “complex system” but that is not a meritocratic approach although it might be a viable alternative.
  5. Not at all. Having stumbled at hurdle 4 we fall.

It looks like meritocracy is more mirage than vision and that we should probably avoid making claims about a brave new world of meritocratic open standards development. Some anti-patterns:  “Anyone can play” is not a meritocracy; it depends on who you know, its not a meritocracy. The latter, cronysim, is a dangerous conceit.

There are many useful methods of governance that are not meritocratic; i.e. methods that would satisfy an “act utilitarian”. I suggest we put merit to one side for now or look for a substantially more limited context.

Linked Data: Where is the Low-hanging Fruit?

Here are my thoughts on some generic considerations, some mentioned in the recent SemTech meeting and some I jotted down following the CETIS Conference, on where low hanging fruit may be found. NB these are “generic” and not specific; the idea is that they might be useful in judging the likelihood of success of some specific good/cool/potential ideas. I am referring here to exposure of Linked Data on the public web. In no particular order:

  • Ariadne’s Thread. Does the current state of (poor) information management present a problem and is there resolve to find your way out of the maze? If it has become necessary to sit down and get your domain model straight and re-organise/re-engineer (some of) your information systems then you have done most of the hard work necessary for exposing Linked Data (i.e. Open to some degree) and you could usefully adopt Linked Data principles for private use.
  • Ox Pecker. Is there a mutual benefit between you and another data provider? Can this be amplified by explicit technical, financial or effort (etc) support one or both ways? This builds on the essential attribute of linking.
  • Sloping Shoulders. Can you avoid creating an ontology? No-one else will care about it if you do.
  • Aspirin. Does anyone have a headache that can be made better? Is there an institutional/business problem that can be solved? (this is not the same as Ariadne’s Thread)
  • Blue Peter. Is the creation or acquisition and processing and dissemination of information already something you do? Is the quality and availability of the information something you invest effort in? This is a ready-made candidate for Linked Data.
  • Cow Path. Is information you already make available (as web pages or PDF etc) used by others in ways you know about and understand?
  • UFO. Do people want to refer to something you have or do but don’t have an unambiguous way of identifying what they are referring to? Could you provide a URI for the thing and information about it?
  • 2+2=5. Is there clear value to be gained from linking the information that is to be exposed? Can people do something new, do they want to and will they continue to want to?
  • Chatham House. Avoid exposing data that identifies, or could identify, a person.

EU Ministerial Declaration: studying, open standards and more

The Malmö Declaration (18th Nov 2009), a unanimous declaration by EU member state ministers responsible for eGovernment makes a number of statements that are worth extracting:

Our public administrations should therefore:

15. Create a noticeable and positive change in the ease with which citizens can study, work, reside and retire in any Member State. We will enable and support the creation of seamless cross-border eGovernment services by focusing our efforts on these life-stages.

21. Pay particular attention to the benefits resulting from the use of open specifications in order to deliver services in the most cost-effective manner. We will ensure that open specifications are promoted in our national interoperability frameworks in order to lower barriers to the market. We will work to align our national interoperability frameworks with applicable European frameworks…

22. Regard innovation as an integral part of our way of working. We will promote innovation in eGovernment services through research and development, pilot projects and other implementation schemes. We will explore and develop the possibilities offered by new open and flexible service architectures and new computing paradigms.”

As a JISC Innovation Support Centre that spends a considerable amount of time supporting pilots and working (often invisibly to outsiders) on European and international open standards, including two draft European standards to support entry and exit transitions to periods of formal study, CETIS clearly has affinity with these declarations.

Adoption of Service Oriented Architecture for Enterprise Systems in Education: Recommended Practices

IMS recently released a white paper with the un-catchy but informative title “Adoption of Service Oriented Architecture for Enterprise Systems in Education: Recommended Practices“. While it is fair to say that no publication on SOA can avoid someone taking issue with something, this paper does a pretty good job of meeting its aims of providing those in the (mostly post-compulsory) education technology audience with relevant information on the reasons why they should at least consider service orientation and how they might go about moving in that direction.

Education has many unique challenges associated with integrating business and academic processes and technologies.  This Recommended Practices for Education on Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) from IMS Global Learning Consortium filters the information on the current state of SOA concepts, tools and practices and provides guidance on when adoption of SOA is appropriate in Education to overcome some of its core challenges.” (from IMS)

We (CETIS) produced a complementary look at the service-orientation back in March 2009, which we will update in 2010, with a similarly un-catchy but informative (we hope) title “Technology Change in Higher and Further Education – a service oriented approach“.