Wednesday, August 29, 2007

W3C Australia Standards Symposium

W3C Australia held a one day Standards Symposium in Canberra on 28 August 2007. This is a one day event to look at where web standards are going. These are my informal notes from the event, not official minutes. The symposium was organized with NICTA, with OASIS, OGC and AGIMO also presenting.

World Wide Web Consortium Australia

The World Wide Web Consortium's Australian office (
W3C Aus) is run by CSIRO in Canberra (on the other side of my office wall in the ANU Computer Science and Information Technology Building).

W3C issue what they call "recommendations", but which are really standards, for HTML, XML, CSS and other key web technologies. W3C was founded by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, in 1994. As with any standards work, there is a rich mix of political, technological and commercial forces at work.

A recent area of tension touched on in the introduction was the schism in the web community between HTML and XHTML. Those working on the next version of HTML (HTML 5) have clearly stated they want to go a different direction from the work on the next XHTML (version 2).

Other tensions are with intellectual property issues with web recommendations. W3C aims to produce technology which can be freely used, without payment of royalties.

W3C wants to expand the web beyond desktop computers, to devices such as mobile phones. That probably is more a matter of commerce, than technology, but the advent of new consumer smart phones may make a differecne.

Typically the W3C process is to first have a "workshop" in an area of interest, then a working groups is formed (if justified) and publishes drafts for comment, implementations are produced to see the technology works, and after several more drafts a recommendation is released. Perhaps more importantly, W3C releases revisions and new versions of recommendations. Implementation guides and web tools are also provided to help with implementation.

As well as the more technical standards for HTML and CSS, W3C also produces guidelines, such as those for web accessibility. There are dozens of working groups working on interrelated recommendations who need to coordinate their work. W3C membership costs money and working group members contribute their time for free.

W3C Australia head, Ross Ackland, claimed the future of the web was to: semantic web, mobile web, and sensor web. He suggested we were in the middle of a ten year adoption of the mobile web, with the semantic web was further in the future and
sensor web was a newly emerging technology CSIRO would like to foster.

The semantic web tries to make a web which machines can understand. Ross argued that Web 2.0 and mashups were a "grass roots" ad-hoc approach to what the semantic web was attempting. My view is that WSeb 2.0 and mashups were providing useful services, while semantic web is a failure which should be abandoned.

The W3C Mobile Web Initiative in 2005 got the attention of the mobile phone industry. But the industry has had several attempts at turning the mobile phone into a viable mobile web device. The industry's attempt with WAP was a failure costing billions of dollars. W3C's own attempt with XHTML Basic, has had limited success. About the only one to be successful was Japan's iMode, which uses a version of HTML which the W3C rejected.

The Sensor Web will provide some standards for sensor access in the future:
The Sensor Web is a type of sensor network or geographic information system (GIS) that is especially well suited for environmental monitoring and control. The term describes a specific type of sensor network: an amorphous network of spatially distributed sensor platforms (pods) that wirelessly communicate with each other. This amorphous architecture is unique since it is both synchronous and router-free, making it distinct from the more typical TCP/IP-like network schemes. The architecture allows every pod to know what is going on with every other pod throughout the Sensor Web at each measurement cycle.

From: Sensor Web, Wikipedia, 21:20, 26 July 2007
CSIRO have a sensor web in Brisbane which can be accessed via web services:

This server contains test deployments of the Open Geospatial Consortium's (OGC) Sensor Web Enablement (SWE) services. ... getCapabilities ... data from the sensors deployed by the Autonomous Systems Laboratory in Brisbane, Australia. The sensor measure temperature, soil moisture and onboard diagnostics at three locations, qcat, belmont and gatton. There are roughly 125 stations with two or three sensors each. This yields over 250 data sources of which about 150 appear to be active. Each source reports every few minutes with data coming in every few seconds. ...

From: CSIRO ICT Centre SWE Web Services, CSIRO ICT Centre, 20 April 2007

Ross ended by asking what Australia could do for web standards. He pointed out that successful standards also needed market adoption. Standards take about five years to develop. The benefits are global. How does Australia contribute? An example is standards for water data standards to help with conservation in Australia and world wide.

OPEN GEOSPATIAL CONSORTIUM

OGC develops "specifications" for digital maps. The aim is to be able to knit together different online mapping services to produce a coherent view for the user. OGC works with W3C groups, ISO (ISO 191xx series including ISO 19115 for Metadata) and OASIS (such as Common Alert Protocol (CAP) for emergency messages), IEEE (Sensor Model Language: SensorML).

OGC sponsors scenarios to test implementation of standards (much like the
Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration [CWID] for military IT). OWS 4 in December 2006 worked on sensor web enablement SWE, geo processing workflow GPN and geo-decision support. OWS 5 for 2007 is being planned.

One thing which got my attention was mention of "Social Change On-line".

At question time there was a philosophical discussion of what a standard was, their benefits, disadvantages and processes. This was entertaining but not very enlightening. Perhaps there is a need for some courses on what standards are and how they are created.

Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards

Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) was foundered in 1993 for SGML related standards (more recently XML standards). It has more than 60 technical committees. Individuals and organisations can join. A well known OASIS standard is ODF, based on the OpenOffice.org office document format. OASIS produces horizontal standards (general purpose technology) and vertical standards (for a particular business function). Other standards are
Universal Business Language (UBL) , Customer Information Quality (CIQ) for identifying locations, organisations and people and Common Alert Protocol (CAP) for emergency messages.

Semantic Web

W3C's Semantic Web is about being able to process information. Current work is on an English-like version of the
Web Ontology Language (OWL). This reminds me of the attempt with COBOL to create an English-like computer programming language which could be understood by non technical business people. The result was a verbose language which was still unintelligible to business people and cumbersome for trained computer programmers.

SPARQL is the semantic query language. POWDER the Protocol for Web Description Resources. GRDDL the Gleaning Resources Descriptions and Dialects of Languages.

This was the least useful session of the day. The Semantic Web may well turn out to be very useful one day, but so far all that appears to have been produced are a bewildering array of unintelligible standards. About the only prospect of any of this work ever being of use would be to apply the process Tim Berners-Lea used to create the web, where he took a large and complex standard (SGML) and trimmed it down to the essentials to make HTML.

GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA

Chris Body presented about standards in Geoscience Australia. GA seem to have suddenly become more visible, with work on geospatial standards and Tsunami warnings.
The Special Minister of State, Gary Nairn, announced an Australian Spatial Consortium (ASC), on 14 August 2007, but it was not clear to me what this is.

ANZLIC (Spatial Information Council) have provided the ANZLIC Metadata Profile (December 2006) ISO TC211 framework. GeoNetwork is a metadata entry tool endorsed by Australian agencies in August 2007.

Geoscience people have a preference for formal international standards. However, GA is aiming to have any Australian contributions to be available free for public use under a Creative Commons licence.

Australian Government Information Management Office

Brian Stonebridge from AGIMO working on a standards governance framework. Brian argued that standards are boring to end users, there has to be some value to the user to get them interested. Brian's presentation was the most impressive of the day, because he was taking about how the standards could be used for the benefit of the community and he actualled used the technology he was talking about to make the presentation, via AGIMO's GovDex:
GovDex is a resource developed by government agencies to facilitate business process collaboration across policy portfolios (eg. Taxation, Human Services etc.) and administrative jurisdictions i.e. federal, state or local government levels. ...

From: Welcome to GovDex, Australian Government Information Management Office, 2007
Brian mentioned that some of the work is being done online, via the system with the French government.

Brian estimated that development of standards for government use will cost about $2M a year to administer. This is not the development of new technical standards from scratch, but selecting and profiling standards for a particular application (such as selecting e-document formats for an electronic application for building a house).

AGIMO have developed a plugin for enterprise architect for government standards.

AGIMO will use underlying international and national standards, and over this methods and tools, governance and references models. The business case for this is that it will reduce the cost over time.

Unfortunately Brian then lost me in an assortment of acronyms, including:
  • GIEM, Government Information Exchange Methodology (UMM v2.0 and CCTS v2.0). This extends the Canadian GSRM and is similar to the upper layers of AGA.
  • AGOSP: Australian Government Online Services Portal.
Also NICTA launched a three-year research initiative in eGovernment in January 2007, but it is not clear what this is intended to achieve.

Overview of the day


Ross Ackland argued that we were now "moving up the stack": the low level standards for digital communications using the Internet are set and largely working. The web provides an digital publishing overlay for this. Now more semantic content is being added to the web with standards in areas such as Geoscience and more general areas such as the Semantic Web. This is a useful way to think about the work, but the reality I see is not such a clear or systematic path.

Ross asked what should W3C and other bodies do to further standards in Australia. W3C has only a few full memebrs in Australia, due to the small size of the It industry.

I suggested that NICTA, CSIRO and other interested parties could create a one hour presentation explaining how standards development works in Australia. This could be placed on the web and offered to ACS and other IT groups to explain where standards come from and how they could get involved. This may help avoid some of the controversy and confusion surrounding issues such as the proposed adoption of Microsoft's OOXML format as an ISO standard.

One way to look at this which Ross pointed out is that the point of view about the systems are built will change: instead of building an application for an organisation and then try to interface it to other organisations, we will build the interfaces first. From the wiser perspective, I suggested that the web standards effort could be seen as building a global computer system for processing information, much as the Internet is a global system for communicating information.

Some Overall Issues on the Day

* WHERE IS ASIA?: Several speakers talked of how the standards committees were heavily influenced by US government agencies (particularly the military and security) and less so by European organisations. There appears to be little involvement by Asian organisations. There appeared to be a lack of interest in why this is so, the problems it will cause and what to do about it. Australia is culturally close to the USA and Europe and so can ride on the coat tails of the current standards process. However, at some point Asian countries and industries may decide their interests are not being served by the current standards process and decide to set up a new process for standards. Perhaps Australia can play a part in bridging the gap. This could address cultural and geopolitical issues using the web technology itself.

* USING THE STANDARDS: Many groups are producing advanced web standards. Some Internet and web tools are being used by committees. But the output of the standards committees are PDF documents or web pages. It might be useful for the web standards groups to apply some of the technology they are proposing to the standards process itself.

* USING STANDARDS: Perhaps one area in which Australia can contribute is to helping test and implement standards. This will provide useful feedback to the standards developers and also provide potential useful products.

* AUSTRALIAN DEVELOPMENT THROUGH STANDARDS: The most productive part of the day was meeting David Peterson from Boab Interactive . This Australian IT company is the latest member of W3C Australia. They are based in Townsville, North Queensland and doing web work, mostly with tropical environment research projects. Some years ago the AUstralian government funded me to see how to get regional ICT happening.

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