The “why” of Open Standards

There’s a great book that you need to read if this whole data portability world perplexes you, called Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. Suffice to say, it’s one of those Must Read books, but what I want to share is a story the boys wrote that clearly illustrates one of its central theses.

Hurricane Katrina ripped into the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama on Monday, August 29 2005 causing more human misery and economic damage than any storm on record…

…Yet, out of the chaos, and in the face of official ineptitude, came a powerful story of how an ad hoc team of volunteers from across the country came together to concoct an information management solution that far surpassed anything the local, state, and federal response teams had mustered. At the heart of the volunteer effort was a central repository of survivor information called Katrinalist. This impromptu Web site compiled survivor data from all over the web into a searchable format that made it easy to identify and locate friends and family members…

The story goes onto say all this valuable data to capture relevant information for each person (name, location, age) was collated into a central database and that the team behind this PeopleFinder project even created an open data spec called the PeopleFinder Interchange Format. The big challenge however, was being able to scrape information from a bulletin board which typically read “My father Joe was working in New Orleans and hadn’t evacuated. He was living in Jefferson Parish. We don’t know if he’s okay. Please call me or Mom in Houston. Lisa Brown, Houston, TX.”

What occurred was volunteer efforts to manually enter data into the database, of which thousands of people later did. But there could have been a dramatic difference if there was an agreed upon standard for collecting and sharing data. Imagine if Facebook decided to participate, to allow certain details to be linked to a central identity, which could then be linked to all the data collected by the relief agencies like the Red Cross. We would have interoperability of data, minimizing effort and creating time for potentially time critical information.

Having organisations storing their data in a certain format to export and access, is not killing their competitive advantage (I would argue it helps it). And if people understood the value of Open Standards, which heaven-forbid another disaster of this scale occurs, the power of the Internet can be unleashed to potentially save some lives.

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