How to choose an open standard

Open standards for data are reusable agreements that make it easier for people and organisations to publish, access, share and use better quality data.

This guide helps you ask the right questions when choosing an open standard.

Assessment questions for open standards

Once you discover an open standard, how do you make sure it’s right for you? There are several things to consider, some will be unique to your situation. However, there are immediate questions that apply to most open standards.

Is this standard licensed for anyone to use?

Standards are the creative output of people and organisations and are automatically under copyright. For a standard to be an open standard, it must be explicitly licensed as available for anyone to access and use.

A clear, open licence means anyone can use the open standard without:

  • paying for legal advice to clarify the implications of adopting the standard

  • finding themselves under threat of legal action

  • uncertainty about contributions made to the standard.

Questions to ask about the licensing include:

  • Is there a licence for the standard and is it easy to find? You will want to know what you can and can’t do with the standard. If it isn’t easy to find, it’s worth alerting the standard owner.

  • Is the licence an open licence? An open licence means anyone can use the standard, avoiding the issues highlighted above. If the standard doesn’t use an open licence, is the standard owner amenable to changing it?

  • Is it clear who owns the copyright? The standard may be licensed for use by anyone, however the brand, trademarks and other intellectual property are usually owned by a standard owner. Knowing who owns the copyright can help you understand who ultimately owns the standard.

  • Who will own my contributions to the standard and what licence applies? You may decide to contribute to the standard itself or to supporting documents. You need to know who will own the copyright to your contributions. Some standards require a transfer of copyright, while others ask for a licence to your contributions.

If licensing or copyright on the standard or your contribution to it is unclear, it’s worth contacting the standard owner to clarify as the standard may be:

  • under development leading to incomplete guidance

  • not openly licensed now but the standard owner may be amenable to changing the license

  • other circumstances may apply which can be clarified through contact.

Is this standard designed to meet my needs?

In our research, ‘User experiences of open standards for data’, we found that a successful standard focuses on solving a particular problem or meeting a specific need. When choosing an open standard, consider whether the standard is designed to meet your needs.

What you need from a standard will depend on the problem you are trying to solve.

In general, it is useful to ask the following questions:

  • Who is the target audience for this standard? This tells you if you or your organisation is the target audience for the standard. A standard developed specifically for government agencies may not meet your needs as a business. It may be possible to ask for additions to or extensions of the standard if necessary.

  • Which key features are available in the standard? This tells you which features are prioritised in the standard, including the level of expertise needed to use them and the data or file formats supported.

  • Where are the gaps between features I need and the features available? This tells you how closely the standard meets your needs, including the infrastructure you might need to use the standard effectively. It also acts as a guide to creating or negotiating additions and extensions where necessary.

  • Can the standard be extended or customised to meet my needs? A successful open standard focuses on solving a particular problem or meeting a specific need. This is usually reflected in the core features of the standard, however, additional features may be added for other stakeholders in the form of extensions or additional features.

Some standards encourage the community to engage with the standards developer and request features or contribute changes directly to the standard. Check with the standard owner if this is possible

Is this standard actively maintained?

An open standard may evolve over time in response to the needs of its community, or changes to technology, infrastructure, or regulation.

Checking for activity and updates is one way to understand if the standard is still evolving. Maintenance schedules can vary from quick updates as issues crop up to periodic scheduled reviews.

To check a standard is being actively maintained, it is useful to ask these questions:

  • Is the standard’s website still active? Many standards have a dedicated website or are available through portals, repository sites like Github and other places online.

  • Is there a notice of retirement on the website? When a standard is no longer required, the standard owner may choose to retire it. In some cases, a notice such as a banner or blog post will announce this.

  • Are forums and other community areas active? Many standards include places where the community can discuss the standard, raise issues and find others using the standard. An active community area will tell you if the standard is active as well as who is active in the community.

  • Is the standard owner or developer responding to questions and suggestions? Where the standard has a community area, this will tell you if the standard owner or standard developers are responsive to the community and if the standard is still active.

  • How is change managed? Check for good governance of an open standard to ensure the standard is properly maintained. Governance describes who can make changes and how changes are managed.

Where a standard is no longer actively maintained, but meets your needs, it may be possible to use the standard as is, as long as it is stable and has been widely adopted. There are several standards that are de facto but no longer actively maintained.

Alternatively, it may be possible to revive a standard through funding, a transfer of ownership or a change of direction. Check with the standard owner or existing guidance to determine why the standard is no longer maintained.

Is there enough guidance to help me use the standard?

Additional guidance makes it easier to understand and use an open standard. This guidance can be aimed at different types of stakeholders, for example, policy, technical teams, people using the data or other outputs from the standard, and more.

Guidance can include a range of resources including technical documentation, policy guides, checklists and how-to guides,diagrams, models and infographics, podcasts and videos, workshops and training sessions.

To check if a standard provides the right guidance for you, it is useful to ask:

  • Is there guidance aimed at people like me? This tells you if there is guidance to help with your focus, which could include policy, implementation, or use of the outputs of the standard. Where guidance isn’t available, it’s worth contacting the standard owner or raising this with the community. Consider supporting the standard by contributing to guidance where encouraged and possible.

  • Is the guidance in my language? Some standards are aimed at a specific geographic area and guidance may only be available in local languages. Where a standard is aimed at an international audience, it is useful to have the standard and guidance in multiple languages. Consider supporting translation through funding or contributing translation resources where a standard otherwise meets your needs.

Alongside these questions, it’s useful to consider when to use open standards and when not to create new standards.

For more in-depth assessment, the UK government publish a guide that explains the questions and process used to assess an open standard proposal. The ’How an open standards proposal is assessed’ guide can be adapted to your needs.

How to use this guide

There are a number of ways for you to learn more about the creation, development and adoption of open standards for data.

About this guide

This guidebook helps people and organisations create, develop and adopt open standards for data. It supports a variety of users, including policy leads, domain experts and technologists.

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