Sunday, February 18, 2024

Government Procurement of Open Systems Interoperability or Open Source - a lesson for Digital Public Infrastructure

40+ years ago the US and European countries devised a government procurement policy which was to require suppliers to conform to Open Systems Interconnection standards - this was a collection of documents that could be used in RFP (request for proposals) to ensure that vendors bidding for government contracts to supply communications equipment, software, systems and even infrastructure would comply to standards that meant the government could avoid certain pitfalls like lockin, and monopolies of vendors arriving in the communications sectore.

It worked - we got the Internet - probably the worlds first digital public infrastructure provided both by public and private service providers, equipment and software vendors, and a great deal of open source software (and some hardware).

There's one review of how this evolved back in 1990 that represents an interesting transition point, from what were International Standards for Interconnection provided by the UN related organisation ISO or the ITU, to the Internet Standards, which were just about to come to dominate real world deployments - 1992 was a watershed point when the US research fudning agencies stopped funding IP infrastructure, and commercial ISPs very rapidly crystalised out of regional and national (and later, international) community run networks (where communities had been collaborations of research labs and universities funded by DARPA and NSF, or similar in Europe).

Why did the Internet Standards replace the ISO/ITU standards as the favourites in goverment procurement? It is hard to prove this, but my take is that they were significantly different in one simple regard - the specifications were matched with open source implementations. From around the early 1980s, one example was Berkeley Unix which included a rock solid TCP/IP software stack, funded by DARPA (derived from one at BBN (and required to be open source so others (universities, commerce and defense) could use and add to it as needed in the research programs of the 1980s, as actually happened. By 1992, just as the network went beyond government subsidy status, Berners-Lee released the first open source web server and browser (and specifications) and example sites boomed. Then we had a full fledged ecosystem with operational experience, compelling applications, and a business case for companies to join in to extend and make money, and governments to take advantage of rapidly improving technology, falling prices, and a wide choice of providers.

So in a competing world, standards organisations are just more sector, and customers, including some of the biggest cosumters, i.e. governments, can call the shots in who might win.

Now we face calls for Digital Public Infrastructures for other systems (open banking, digital identity being a cornerstone of that, but many others) and the question arises about how the governance should work for these.

So my conclusion from history is that we need open standards, we need government procurement to require interoperability (c.f. Europen Digital Markets Act requirement) and we need open source exemplars for all components to keep all the parties honest.

I personally would like to go further - I think AI today exploits the open availability of huge swathes of data to create new knowledge and artefacts. This too should be open source, open access, and required to interoperate - LLMs for example could scale much better if they used common structures and intermediate model formats that admitted of federation of models (and could even do so with privacy of training data if needed)...

We don;t want to end up with the multiple silos that we currently have in social media and messaging platforms, or indeed, the ridiculous isolation between video conferencing apps that all work in browsers using WebRTC but don't work with each other. This can all be avoided by a little bit of tweaking of government procurement, and some nudging using the blunt instrument of Very Large Contracts :-)

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