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Information Interoperability: The Next Great Challenge for IT

By Allen Bernard

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The networks are seemingly ubiquitous, “five-nines” are common, and hardware and software work together more or less fluidly; these were once among IT’s greatest challenges. Today, many of these one-time obstacles to business productivity are considered just part of the fabric that is our interconnected world.

“The challenges keep getting solved and each time you solve a challenge you get a bigger challenge or another challenge,” said Chris Harding, who manages The Open Group’s work on semantic interoperability. “So, the next problem is making the same sense out of the data that you exchange across those connections.”

In other words, too get everyone talking a common language, or lexicon—at least from a business perspective (good luck on the rest). So, you ask, why does IT need to care? Because, like all things business today, it is IT’s job to make “it” work. Information interoperability (IIO) is no different since it is IT’s job to take whatever terminology is being used to describe whatever business transaction is taking place, and replicate it across system and after business system.

And, as businesses continually strive to link to other businesses in real-time, if the information is not accurate, then whatever IT does in its role as facilitator will fall short in terms of business outcome. This, in a nutshell, is why IT needs to care about IIO. Without IIO, problems based on misunderstandings cascade very quickly. They can also be fixed quickly, but that takes people away from more important, higher-level work.

If you look across verticals—healthcare, aerospace, IT, etc.—you realize that common lexicons built around specialized knowledge have been in place since the Stone Age. The push today is to mold the everyday language of business into a common lexicon that means the same thing to everyone regardless of where the transaction is taking place or in what language.

The semantic Web we’ve begun hearing so much about recently is an attempt to make this vision a reality but it is, for now, an academic exercise with little impact in the business world.

From a technology perspective, XML and metadata are merely wrappers, if you will, for this effort but the real work of establishing common lexicons is done by people. Machines will facilitate the end result, but it’s up to people to find common ground on the meaning of terms and that means it ain’t going to be easy.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t appreciate it yet, because they look at things from their (siloed) perspective and to them it’s clear,” said Tom Reale, associate executive director in the Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance division of MITRE, a non-profit research corporation.

There is a lot of work being done in this area, however, and it is bearing fruit. At the standards setting body, OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), for example, they have come up with the universal business language (UBL) in an attempt to codify the terminology around the most common business practice: procurement.

UBL is being used by the government of Denmark and is currently being translated into a number of different languages. Because UBL provides the actual XML syntax, the information in UBL templates means the same thing to everyone regardless of their native tongue, said OASIS CEO Patrick Gannon. Of the 55 committee currently operating under the OASIS banner, 30-to-40 are focused on the issue of business semantics and the others are working on the technology side of this issue.

MITRE is also focused on this issue. They are currently working to crack the federated search issue so you can enter a term once, define it as a concept search or a keyword search, for example, and have the results come back the way you want them to from multiple sources. They are also applying social networking and bookmarking techniques to the issue of unstructured data. By allowing the people that actually use the documents and other data to tag it with what they feel are the appropriate markers, a “folksonomy” is developed.

The idea is fairly straight forward: People with common interests are probably looking for the same information using the similar search terms so why not let them help others by metatagging information in any way they see fit. The beauty of this approach is it is not mutually exclusive. The information can still be found by search engines that rely on keywords, for example. The folksonomy is an attempt to apply natural language search to structured data.

OWL, which stands for Web ontology language, is what the semantic Web relies on for its communication standard and The Open Group is working on universal data element framework (UDEF), which is a more pragmatic, engineering solution based on how you index metadata. And then there HL7, which is “a higher level of information about information that enables different programs written by different people in different locations to interpret the same information in the same way,” said Harding.

But, even with many, many smart people working very diligently to crack the IIO nut, these efforts are nascent at best. Reconciling data often means lots of people working lots of hours spending lots of time and lots of money. And this will probably not change any time soon. The hope is, once a lexicon is in place for the most common things all businesses do, machines can take over and allow us to do things in new ways we haven’t even thought of yet.