Today sees the launch of the first release of the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS). The standard, as I’ve written before, brings together concrete guidance on the kinds of documents and data that are needed for increased transparency in processes of public contracting, with a technical specification describing how to represent contract data and meta-data in common ways.
When I first jotted down a few notes on how to go forward from the rapid prototype I worked on with Sarah Bird in 2012, I didn’t realise we would actually end up with the opportunity to put some of those ideas into practice. However: we did – and so in this post I wanted to reflect on some aspects of the standard we’ve arrived at, some of the learning from the process, and a few of the ideas that have guided at least my inputs into the development process.
As, hopefully, others pick up and draw upon the initial work we’ve done (in addition to the great inputs we’ve had already), I’m certain there will be much more learning to capture.
(1) Foundations for ‘open by default’
Early open data advocacy called for ‘raw data now‘, asking for governments to essentially export and dump online existing datasets, with issues of structure and regular publishing processes to be sorted out later. Yet, as open data matures, the discussion is shifting to the idea of ‘open by default’, and taken seriously this means more than just data dumps that are created being openly licensed as the default position, but should mean that data is released from government systems as a matter of course in part of their day-to-day operation.
The full OCDS model is designed to support this kind of ‘open by default’, allowing publishers to provide small releases of data every time some event occurs in the lifetime of a contracting process. A new tender is a release. An amendment to that tender is a release. The contract being awarded, or then signed, are each releases. These data releases are tied together by a common identifier, and can be combined into a summary record, providing a snapshot view of the state of a contracting process, and a history of how it has developed over time.
This releases and records model seeks to combine together different user needs: from the firm seeking information about tender opportunities, to the civil society organisation wishing to analyse across a wide range of contracting processes. And by allowing core stages in the business process of contracting to be published as they happen, and then joined up later, it is oriented towards the development of contracting systems that default to timely openness.
As I’ll be exploring in my talk at the Berkman Centre next week, the challenge ahead for open data is not just to find standards to make existing datasets line-up when they get dumped online, but is to envisage and co-design new infrastructures for everyday transparent, effective and accountable processes of government and governance.
(2) Not your minimum viable product
Many open data standard projects adopt either a ‘Minimum Viable Product‘ approach, looking to capture only the few most common fields between publishers, or are developed through focussing on the concerns of a single publisher or users. Whilst MVP models may make sense for small building blocks designed to fit into other standardisation efforts, when it came to OCDS there was a clear user demand to link up data along the contracting process, and this required an overarching framework from into which simple component could be placed, or from which they could be extracted, rather than the creation of ad-hoc components, with the attempt to join them up made later on.
Whilst we didn’t quite achieve the full abstract model + idiomatic serialisations proposed in the initial technical architecture sketch, we have ended up with a core schema, and then suggested ways to represent this data in both structured and flat formats. This is already proving useful for example in exploring how data published as part of the UK Local Government Transparency Code might be mapped to OCDS from existing CSV schemas.
(3) The interop balancing act & keeping flex in the framework
OCDS is, ultimately, not a small standard. It seeks to describe the whole of a contracting process, from planning, through tender, to contract award, signed contract, and project implementation. And at each stage it provides space for capturing detailed information, linking to documents, tracking milestones and tracking values and line-items.
This shape of the specification is a direct consequence of the method adopted to develop it: looking at a diverse set of existing data, and spending time exploring the data that different users wanted, as well as looking at other existing standards and data specifications.
However, OCDS by not means covers all the things that publishers might want to state about contracting, nor all the things users may want to know. Instead, it focusses on achieving interoperability of data in a number of key areas, and then providing a framework into which extensions can be linked as the needs of different sub-communities of open data users arise.
We’re only in the early stages of thinking about how extensions to the standard will work, but I suspect they will turn out to be an important aspect: allowing different groups to come together to agree (or contest) the extra elements that are important to share in a particular country, sector or context. Over time, some may move into the core of the standard, and potentially elements that appear core right now might move into the realm of extensions, each able to have their own governance processes if appropriate.
As Urs Gasser and John Palfrey note in their work on Interop, the key in building towards interoperability is not to make everything standardised and interoperable, but is to work out the ways in which things should be made compatible, and the ways in which they should not. Forcing everything into a common mould removes the diversity of the real world, yet leaving everything underspecified means no possibility to connect data up. This is both a question of the standards, and the pressures that shape how they are adopted.
(4) Avoiding identity crisis
Data describes things. To be described, those things need to be identified. When describing data on the web, it helps if those things can be unambiguously identified and distinguished from other things which might have the same names or identification numbers. This generally requires the use of globally unique identifiers (guid): some value which, in a universe of all available contracting data, for example, picks out a unique contracting process; or, in the universe of all organizations, uniquely identifies a specific organization. However, providing these identifiers can turn out to be both a politically and technically challenging process.
The Open Data Institute have recently published a report on the importance of identifiers that underlines how important identifiers are to processes of opening data. Yet, consistent identifiers often have key properties of public goods: everyone benefits from having them, but providing and maintaining them has some costs attached, which no individual identifier user has an incentive to cover. In some cases, such as goods and service identifiers, projects have emerged which take a proprietary approach to fund the maintenance of those identifiers, selling access to the lookup lists which match the codes for describing goods and services to their descriptions. This clearly raises challenges for an open standard, as when proprietary identifiers are incorporated into data, then users may face extra costs to interpret and make sense of data.
In OCDS we’ve sought to take as distributed an approach to identifiers as possible, only requiring globally unique identifiers where absolutely necessary (identifying contracts, organizations and goods and services), and deferring to existing registration agencies and identity providers, with OCDS maintaining, at most, code lists for referring to each identity ‘scheme’.
In some cases, we’ve split the ‘scheme’ out into a separate field: for example, an organization identifier consists of a scheme field with a value like ‘GB-COH’ to stand for UK Companies House, and then the identifier given in that scheme, like ‘5381958’. This approach allows people to store those identifiers in their existing systems without change (existing databases might hold national company numbers, with the field assumed to come from a particular register), whilst making explicit the scheme they come from in the OCDS. In other cases, however, we look to create new composite string identifiers, combining a prefix, and some identifier drawn from an organizations internal system. This is particularly the case for the Open Contracting ID (ocid). By doing this, the identifier can travel between systems more easily as a guid – and could even be incorporated in unstructured data as a key for locating documents and resources related to a given contracting process.
However, recent learning from the project is showing that many organisations are hesistant about the introduction of new IDs, and that adoption of an identifier schema may require as much advocacy as adoption of a standard. At a policy level, bringing some external convention for identifying things into a dataset appears to be seen as affecting the, for want of a better word, sovereignty of a specific dataset: even if in practice the prefix approach of the ocid means it only need to be hard coded in the systems that expose data to the world, not necessarily stored inside organizations databases. However, this is an area I suspect we will need to explore more, and keep tracking, as OCDS adoption moves forward.
(5) Bridging communities of practice
If you look closely you might in fact notice that the specification just launched in Costa Rica is actually labelled as a ‘release candidate‘. This points to another key element of learning in the project, concerning the different processes and timelines of policy and technical standardisation. In the world of funded projects and policy processes, deadlines are often fixed, and the project plan has to work backwards from there. In a technical standardisation process, there is no ‘standard’ until a specification is in use: and has been robustly tested. The processes for adopting a policy standard, and setting a technical one, differ – and whilst perhaps we should have spoken from the start of the project of an overall standard, embedding within it a technical specification, we were too far down the path towards the policy launch before this point. As a result, the Release Candidate designation is intended to suggest the specification is ready to draw upon, but that there is still a process to go (and future governance arrangements to be defined) before it can be adopted as a standard per-se.
(6) The schema is just the start of it
This leads to the most important point: that launching the schemas and specification is just one part of delivering the standard.
In a recent e-mail conversation with Greg Bloom about elements of standardisation, linked to the development of the Open Referral standard, Greg put forward a list of components that may be involved in delivering a sustainable standards project, including:
- The specification – with its various components and subcomponents);
- Tools that assesses compliance according to the spec (e.g. validation tools, and more advanced assessment tools);
- Some means of visualizing a given set of data’s level of compliance;
- Incentives of some kind (whether positive or negative) for attaining various levels of compliance;
- Processes for governing all of the above;
- and of course the community through which all of this emerges and sustains;
To this we might also add elements like documentation and tutorials, support for publishers, catalysing work with tool builders, guidance for users, and so-on.
Open government standards are not something to be published once, and then left, but require labour to develop and sustain, and involve many social processes as much as technical ones.
In many ways, although we’ve spent a year of small development iterations working towards this OCDS release, the work now is only just getting started, and there are many technical, community and capacity-building challenges ahead for the Open Contracting Partnership and others in the open contracting movement.