Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Setting standards

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about being in Geneva at an international standards meeting. There’s a lot of passionate and engaged people here. Read on for my speaking notes.

Q: Hello Colin – what are you doing in Switzerland?

A: I’m here at the headquarters of ISO, the International Standards Organisation.

Q: Why?

A: I’m on the New Zealand delegation to a meeting about a proposed standard. Now that might sound a bit, well, tedious – but it’s actually rather important.

Q: I suppose standards are important in, say, building work?

A: They are indeed. They are important in safety-critical areas like electric power as well. If there is no “right way” to do something its hard to complain if someone does things differently. In an extreme example, without there being safety standards around electrical work, your electrician could wire your house up so your light switches were live, and he or she would have done nothing wrong! Still, you probably wouldn’t be in a position to complain about for another reason…

Q: I’d be electrocuted, you mean. No. But you’re not an electrician – what’s the standard you are there for?

A: I’m here looking at a proposed ISO standard for document formats. That’s exactly how a computer saves a word-processing document as a computer file. And with the complexity of what word processors, spreadsheets and presentation packages can do these days, this is not a trivial standard. Everybody uses these things; we all want to be able send documents to each other and have them just open on the other person’s computer. It’s worth some time and effort trying to get this right.

Q: Why should there be standards for this kind of thing?

A: There are lots of reasons. One is that the right standard allows competition because it lets companies write competing software that can open files saved in another program. That means that companies have to compete on the performance and price of their products rather than on the basis of what files they will open. Another reason is that it allows governments, or the rest of us for that matter, to look inside the files that are saved by our word processors and figure out what’s there, maybe even subject it to some processing ourselves. It’s particularly important for archives, for instance – archivists want to be able to guarantee to read a document in a hundred years. They need to know exactly how the file that contains that document works.

Q: How do standards like this get made?

A: It’s a pretty involved process. And I’ve been privileged to have a kind of worm’s eye view of it, because I’ve been working with New Zealand’s national standards body on the draft standard.

Q: Did you write the standard?

A: Heavens, no. It came out of a European standards body called ECMA – that’s the European Computer Manufacturers’ Association – about a year ago, and ECMA sort of lobbed it over the battlements here at ISO, and said: please can we make this a world ISO standard.

ISO then started going through a process with this draft standard. ISO sought a vote and comments from each national standards body around the world, and that had to be delivered to ISO at the beginning of September last year. That’s where I got involved. Standards New Zealand are our local standards body – they are a government body but they are independent of the public service.

Anyway, Standards New Zealand invited me to participate in an experts’ workshop on this standard which they hosted for two days last August. Quite a lot of large companies were there, some general technology folk like me, and the public service showed up with a contingent as well. And, I have to say, there was a lot of pretty robust discussion between people of differing views.

What I thought was good about the workshop, was that it was made clear at the start of the workshop that there wasn’t going to be a vote at it. Standards New Zealand people effectively said: we are the decision makers, your job is to go through the technical arguments in front of us and we will decide based on that.

Q: So it was like a court room?

A: In a way it was. There weren’t any lawyers, but technical people can be just as argumentative! Anyway, Standards New Zealand takes the view that it’s there to cast an informed vote on behalf of New Zealand. And I’m impressed by the open way it has operated so far. It’s done its level best to be fair. To be frank, the process in some other countries has not always been as transparent. And there are vested interests operating here, with huge amounts of lobbying. It’s really important to conduct fair process. In New Zealand, we have had lots of positive feedback from people in other countries saying they wished their standards body had been as open as ours.

Q: OK, what came out of that workshop? And why Geneva?

A: Well, Standards New Zealand cast the New Zealand vote on the standard last September following the workshop, and when the votes were counted world-wide it was almost a draw. New Zealand’s vote was on the side that won. That was to vote “no” to the standard. But it’s not over yet.

And as to why it all happens in Geneva – who knows? It has to be somewhere. Perhaps it has something to do with the city’s history as a place of puritan reforms. It was John Calvin’s power base, after all. He was a reforming protestant theologian who was the temporal leader of Geneva in the 1500s. He tended to execute people who didn’t agree with his rather dour interpretation of the bible. A lot of his views, which must have seemed pretty extreme at the time, have been part of mainstream protestantism since.

Anyway, back to modern Geneva. Its the European headquarters of the UN, and there are UN agencies here – I walk past the UNHCR building every day, for instance. Geneva’s a pretty town, not as big as you might expect, set right on the big lake we call Lake Geneva – although in French, which is what they speak here, the lake’s name is quite different. There are lowish mountains visible all around with a dusting of snow on. And Geneva has the famous jet, a really high fountain that comes straight out of the lake. Not that I have had any time to go and look at that on this trip!

Q: So your meeting in Geneva is to resolve this standard? How does that work?

A: Not really. When countries voted last year, they mostly gave comments on the standard. Some were along the lines of “you missed out a full stop”, some were major concerns or philosophical differences. Some of those comments disagreed with other comments. Since then, ECMA, the people who wrote the draft standard, have been making changes to try to address some of the comments they got. The aim of the Geneva meeting is to get to final draft of the standard, one that most countries agree with. So, at the meeting there are about 120 people in a big room, and everybody is organised into national delegations. So I have another New Zealander on one side of me – there are three in total – and a gentleman from the Netherlands on my other side. And at the end of the week we will have come up with a set of instructions to the editor of the standard, which will then be revised again to include the changes that the meeting made.

But that still doesn’t mean that the draft standard gets passed at that stage.

Q: So something else happens after that?

A: After this meeting there’s one more chance for this draft standard. Every country that has voted already gets an opportunity to change its vote over the next month. If it passes, this becomes an international ISO standard. If it doesn’t, then ECMA has to take it away and figure what it wants to do next.

The whole international debate about this standard hung – and still hangs – in a fairly fine balance. I honestly don’t know which way it’s going to go. So, although this meeting is important, the real action takes place in three to four weeks time when countries think whether to change their votes. I know Standards New Zealand is listening to people in New Zealand as to whether it should change its current vote and it will decide over the next few weeks.

Q: So it all happens at the end of March – watch this space!


Standards New Zealand, New Zealand’s standards body.

ISO, the International Standards Organisation.

posted by colin at 10:50 am  

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress