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The route in digital transformation: open standards

Open standards are an important condition for successful digital transformation. We talk to three experts about adoption, trends and the urgent need for standards. "We want to ski from many different mountains, but don't have a common ski binding yet."

We all agree: in the education and research sector, our autonomy is a great thing. However, digitalisation is making us increasingly dependent on technology and suppliers. It is important that we make the right decisions now, so that we maintain sufficient clout in the digital transformation itself and, in the meantime, move in the right direction together. To do this, we make agreements and these are captured in standards, open standards.

Portret Larissa Zegveld voorzitter Forum voor Standaardisatie

Larissa Zegveld, chair of the Forum for Standardisation and CEO Kennisnet

What is a standard?

"While skiing, I once had the opportunity to explain that," says Larissa Zegveld, president of the Standardisation Forum and CEO of Kennisnet. "For people who ski, it is easy to understand. If you ski, you can go to any country with your ski boots and you can rent skis that have a standard ski binding on them. It doesn't matter where you got your ski boots from or where you rent skis. You can ski down many mountains for years with the same ski boots and different skis."

Translated to the digital world, there is a similar development there. We have started exchanging more and more data with each other and this is only increasing. In short, we want to ski many different mountains, but do not yet have the common binding.

Open standards follow a democratic process

The question on the minds of many is 'do you, as an organisation, want to make yourself dependent on agreements, which at first sight are difficult to understand and for which the knowledge is not always already present internally'. After all, committing to a standard means you have to follow certain 'rules'. But this is precisely why the democratic process with open standards is so valuable.

"Imagine if twenty per cent of all healthcare professionals in the world write down their data according to one standard, and that that data could be used for scientific research, we would build an unparalleled knowledge base."
Wouter de Haan, manager system management Nictiz

"We speak of an open standard when documentation on that standard is readily available and therefore accessible to everyone," Zegveld explains. "There are no licences on it, nor are there any intellectual property barriers. Actually, it belongs to all of us. It is democratic: everyone who has to deal with that standard has a say and there is a management organisation that keeps an eye on the fact that if there are changes to the standard, it is still interoperable."

Wouter de Haan, manager of system management at Nictiz, the knowledge organisation that manages and develops standards in healthcare, among others, gives a very nice example of what is possible when standards are deployed well. "Healthcare has a standardised language for medical terminology: SNOMED. This language is basically embraced worldwide, almost all countries have said, we are going to use this. The intention is there. Now imagine if twenty per cent of the world's healthcare providers write down their data according to that standard and that data could be used for scientific research. Then we will build a knowledge base that is unparalleled. Where now disease profiles are still rare and doctors are at a loss for words, soon no disease will be special if we can share all that information with each other."

The standardisation process: systems on which innovation can take place

Is standardisation good for innovation? "On the one hand, you can say that standardisation comes at the expense of creativity, and therefore innovation. But on the other hand, standardisation does create compatibility standards, allowing you to create systems in which innovation can take place," says associate professor of standardisation Geerten van de Kaa (TU Delft). "A standard is similar to a dominant design. And within that design, you can innovate." According to Van de Kaa, we need to understand the standardisation process better, because then you can realise those innovative systems that allow us to meet the challenges that arise from all our ambitions, such as flexible teaching and maximum reuse of research data.

Portret van Geerten van de Kaa, universitair hoofddocent aan de TU Delft

Geerten van de Kaa, associate professor TU Delft

"Parties in all sorts of places are developing options for standards, but because it is far from all aligned, initiatives can get in each other's way. This can result in so-called 'standards battles'." It is one of the subjects Van de Kaa has been working on since the beginning of his career. And one of the central questions, which is also of interest to us, is: what contributes to a standard being adopted by the market and subsequently accepted by users. "In large medical institutions, for example, standards are chosen, but people don't always use those standards," says Van de Kaa.

"In healthcare, we have some big challenges, and one of them is how do we ensure that healthcare providers start working in accordance with standards?" agrees De Haan. "What we struggle with is storing information properly coded at the source. Does the system support the healthcare provider to put information in the right place?"

"Creating standards is a very careful and thorough piece of work, but we have a lot of use for it. Just think of the tax return form we fill in for our income taxes. We are overjoyed that this is pre-filled. That is a prime example of data exchange via open standards," says Zegveld. The supplied data come together from different parties here.

Switching suppliers: easier with open standards

We are now in the phase of increasing data exchange across the borders of institutions, sectors and even countries. Before, we were in a phase where institutions were mainly internally focussed in automating their business processes. During that period, 'each worked for himself' or, as De Haan describes it, 'compartmentalised'. "That has sometimes had very positive effects within a compartment. If you look at the service provided by an individual hospital, it is incomparably better in 2023 than it was in 2011, but as soon as you go beyond the boundaries of the compartment, it is still quite dramatic."

"In tender processes, it turned out that we could not very easily switch to another vendor with our data and information. We were stuck in vendor lock-ins."
Larissa Zegveld, chair of the Forum for Standardisation and CEO Kennisnet

"You see that we are increasingly moving towards an open standards environment, precisely because we are coming out of a phase where we were stuck with closed standards," Zegveld says. "We ran into that, in tendering procedures, for example, when it turned out that we couldn't very easily switch to another vendor with our data and information. We were stuck in vendor lock-ins. That was the trigger to make the move to open standards. That movement is going very fast now."

"Like many other organisations, we are stuck with a legacy of systems and within the education sector, we have succeeded together in linking them as much as possible via the open standard OOAPI." This is one of the success examples of an open standard, but there are many more standards, and for education and research, they are laid down in Edustandaard.

Portret Wouter de Haan manager stelselbeheer bij Nictiz

Wouter de Haan, manager system management at Nictiz

Prevention is better than cure

With standardisation, the big challenge is that sometimes you have to take a step backwards to take two forwards. "It can now happen that software packages in education are purchased that do not comply with standards, making exchange or switching virtually impossible. Then we must first take a step backwards by agreeing on standards so that we can then take two steps forward," Zegveld said.

De Haan has seen the painful consequences of this in practice. "With the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, we agreed to go to a certain version of the Health Level 7 standard, a technical standard on how to specify medical information. But there were parties who had just agreed to invest together in another version of that standard. They now have to divest. They understand that it has to be done if we are ever to share information together in a truly overarching way, but it hurts. At that point, the boards have to stand up and say: we have to go through this to all benefit in the end."

Guarding our public values: working together on open standards

"The success of standards is in the collaboration," says Van de Kaa. "You can come up with all kinds of nice standards, but the adoption of a standard does not come overnight and, oddly enough, benefits from a flexible character, i.e. a standard that undergoes adjustments. Open standards have that characteristic; they always involve many people who can help the standard move forward. Developers can adapt it to their wishes and to the wishes of users. This way, you get a standard that is better for everyone. The diversity of the networks behind standards also contributes to its success. That makes sense, because the more diverse the network, the bigger the potential market share."

"A standard increases in value as more other companies adopt that standard."
Geerten van de Kaa, associate professor TU Delft

As education and research sector, we have important decisions to make. Zegveld: "we unite and enter into discussions with suppliers, including the big parties that operate internationally. This gives us a lot more clout and places us in the position where we can enforce that they don't act too closed. Meanwhile, you see a countermovement in which we are striving for open information provision and working on alternatives. An example of this is the Mastodon environment. And an important trend is identity, in which a lot is going to happen. We want the authenticity of a sender and the public values we consider so important in the Netherlands to remain guaranteed. That takes a lot of work and sometimes we like to opt for the convenience that suppliers offer us, but let's not move rashly towards that."

Above all, let us also be aware of the pressures that, besides innovation, play a major role in the adoption of standards. Van de Kaa explains these. "For example, you have coercive pressures: I am more or less forced to choose a standard because other companies in my value chain also choose that standard and I cannot cooperate otherwise. Then there are the network effects: a standard increases in value the more other companies adopt it." As an education and research sector, together we are big enough to make a difference here.

Text: Maureen van Althuis

'The route in digital transformation: open standards' is an article by SURF Magazine.

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