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Toward a U.N. of Data

November 3, 2010

Is it time for a U.N. of data?

I’m working on a piece for the Economist on why we need a UN of data standards. I think we’re lurching our way toward an unambiguous web of data pretty much one database at a time, and it’s time we picked up the momentum. I’ve been talking for a while about a UN of data, but how would it really work? What are the possibilities?

Maybe we already have it, and it just needs boosting. Maybe it’s ISO, the International Standards Organization, they seem to be interested in standards as services, and that’s an interesting idea. Maybe it’s OASIS, a consortium with over 600 members focusing on XML standards and interoperability. Maybe part of the puzzle is OAGI, the Open Applications Group, which promotes standards for enterprise software. Maybe it’s the OpenGroup, an international consortium with over 300 members focused on achieving real results in the business world. Could there be some people at ConsortiumInfo.org who can help? How about the W3C, the dot-org behind the standards of the Web itself and the driver of HTML 5, which it seems is about to become the new standard building brick of the web. What about the U.N. itself? Okay, let’s not get carried away here.

A friend of mine is thinking about building something he calls “Standardpedia.” He needs it for his business, and he wishes more like-minded people would come together and build it. Is that the right direction? What would it look like?

Obviously, a U.N. of data would be the caretaker of many standards, or perhaps it would coordinate the many standards bodies. It would also help coordinate all the tools and methodologies, as Open Data Commons tries to do. Another thing, though, is to provide a registry for data sources, similar to Tim Berners Lee’s LinkedData.org. And it could let owners name and claim their data, providing various authenticated sources of data. In some cases, you may have several sources for similar data, but you don’t want to have two sources for the same data. Think of baseball game scores, Olympic event results, airline schedules, or Census results – these should only come from one place, and that means we’ll need “authoritative sources” for many kinds of data. And of course we need government standards and repositories, like Data.gov and CommunityData.info. We’ll need legal frameworks for protecting, owning, transfering, and working with data among different parties. And we’ll need ways of resolving disputes. That’s a lot to ask from one organization, but without it we may not have a firm foundation for building the information platform we want for the 21st century.

What do you think? This isn’t a thought piece like most of my blog posts. I want to ask you to help me envision a UN of data. Click on the headline and then post a comment, or send me email. I would like to know your thoughts, so I can help build this conversation among business people. My book makes the case for participating in standards and cooperating with your competitors. But in reality it’s difficult to make these things work. We need something. What do you think we need?

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