This blog post is written by Tom Orrell and Bill Anderson.

About two-and-a-half years ago, Development Initiatives and Publish What You Fund launched the Joined-Up Data Standards (JUDS) project, funded by the Omidyar Network. Our aim was to foster international collaboration to make commonly used international data standards interoperable to help drive poverty eradication and sustainable development. Our logic was simple – there’s more open data being produced than ever before, but currently much of it isn’t being turned into useful information because it isn’t being joined up with other data.

We are proud of what we have been able to achieve in a relatively short space of time – raising the profile of this issue; running a consultation process to move the conversation from a discussion about interoperability problems to a search for interoperability solutions; contributing to the formation of the Collaborative on SDG Data Interoperability; producing a series of thought-provoking technical discussion papers; and, launching a set of open-source tools that enable data users to map international standards in a comparable way – but we realise that this project has been more about starting a conversation than offering definitive solutions.

‘Interoperability’ means different things to different people. It’s more than just a technical term, it’s about solving real-world problems in a joined-up way. Our new policy paper The frontiers of data interoperability for sustainable development explores the concept in more detail. It also sets out where we believe the frontiers of interoperability policy lie – where progress is being made and challenges persist.

Regardless of how individual stakeholders may approach interoperability challenges, one thing everyone we spoke to when producing our paper agreed on is that interoperability must be a priority for the data revolution. This is because the demand for useful and usable information – produced from contextualised, joined-up, interoperable data – is the key driver in the creation of the sustainable data infrastructures that will ensure that all people can be counted repeatedly and cost-effectively so that no one is left behind.

“Interoperability is not just about technology standards, but also
knowledge-sharing, the development of sustainable (sub)national
capacity and systems, harnessing political support for data, and
increasing investments in information and official statistical production.”
The frontiers of interoperability for sustainable development

Our policy paper highlights a number of sector-specific examples where interoperable solutions have benefited front-line decision-makers. For instance, the Open Health Information Exchange evolved from the Rwanda Health Information Exchange (the development of which was led by the Rwandan Ministry of Health itself) with support from international entities. What examples such as OpenHIE highlight is that interoperability solutions can reduce the time, effort and cost of data collection that is routine in many countries; minimise the frustration and risks associated with finding inconsistent and incomplete data; and, make available, sustainable, disaggregated data for effective decision-making at (sub)national level.

These benefits need to be scaled up within and, more importantly, across sectors. Change at scale will happen only if international coordination helps stakeholders forge common understandings of what solving problems in a joined-up way means in reality. This is why we believe that the Collaborative is so important. The Collaborative can play a crucial role in furthering progress that has already been made and tackling future challenges in interoperability policy. In our paper we suggest four areas that we believe the Collaborative should structure its work around as it moves forward:

  • Facilitating coordination across and between data communities and the broader development community.
  • Supporting national actors to put in place the resources required to meet and measure the SDGs.
  • Providing recommendations, guidance and new opportunities to empower governments to reap the benefits of interoperable data for decision-making and monitoring at the national level.
  • Catalysing the formation of new synergies across communities and between technical and policy stakeholders to develop new projects, approaches and partnerships across and within systems.

As the Collaborative moves the interoperability agenda forward towards the second UN World Data Forum in October 2018, it will need to continue to build and foster a shared appreciation of the problems and solutions that exist across different data and professional communities. From our side, the JUDS project has been an exciting ride and one of the most successful two-year projects either of us has worked on. We look forward to continuing the conversation around interoperability as it evolves.