At its most fundamental level in the context of the digital ecosystem, interoperability is the ability to transfer and render useful data and other information across systems, applications, or components. As a concept interoperability is central, and yet often invisible, to many parts of a highly interconnected modern society. The fact that someone can make a seamless international telephone call without thinking about things like “signaling standards” or transoceanic cables, and can send and receive the same e‐mail on a phone or in a browser regardless of device manufacturer or ISP, is a tribute to ICT interoperability.
But as interconnected as things currently are, they will grow dramatically more so thanks to the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT). This new technology will not only create new forms of interactions with end-users, but connect devices to one-another. As such, IoT is built primarily on a single concept: interoperability. In order for a car, a jet engine, a parking meter, or a pill bottle to send and receive important data, it needs to be able to seamlessly connect to other systems and networks in ways that are meaningful and secure. For that reason it is critical to develop a shared understanding how interoperability functions, the potential costs and benefits of increased levels of interoperability, and the variety of approaches for encouraging interoperability.
In theoretical terms, interoperability functions across four broad layers of complex systems: technological, data, human, institutional. For many people, it is the exchange of data through technological means that comes to mind when they think about interoperability, but the human and institutional aspects of interoperability are just as important.
Technological: The technological layer is the hardware and code that allow one system to physically connect to another. It allows systems to connect to one another and share data, often through an explicit, agreed‐upon interface.
Data: Without the ability to understand and process what is being transmitted, it is insufficient for technological systems to have the capacity to pass bits from one system to another. The data layer is the ability of interconnected systems to understand each other. Anyone who has ever received an e‐mail attachment that their computer could not open understands that simply having the technological capacity to receive data is not the same as interoperability at the data layer.
Human: This layer is the ability for humans to understand and act on the data that is exchanged. Although it is more abstract than the technological and data layers, it can be just as crucial for interoperability.
Institutional: The institutional layer is the ability of societal systems to engage effectively. The legal system is one example of an institutional layer of interoperability. Interoperability at the institutional layer does not require homogeneity of legal systems; it instead requires only enough commonality to protect the interest of both parties.
Successful interoperability relies on interconnections at every layer. Mobile payment is a useful illustration. Interoperability becomes apparent when you consider the variety of actors involved in a single transaction.
Source: Web Merchant
Interconnecting all of these actors across a variety of merchants and devices requires numerous forms of interoperability at each layer.
There are both benefits and drawbacks of higher levels of interoperability as we move towards an IoT connected world. The benefits include: innovation, competition, choice and access. Whereas the potential drawbacks include: security and privacy risks, an increase in homogeneity, a decrease in reliability, accountability, accessibility, and a threat to certain existing business models. The increased capacity for connection has the ability to make daily life more convenient and efficient. But society must make trade‐offs as it becomes digitally connected everywhere and anytime. The same infrastructure that enables people to create, store, and share information can put their privacy and security at risk. For that reason, private actors, governments and regulators must work together to ensure interoperability at all stages of development – from technology, markets, law, and regulation – meets the needs of all stakeholders, from manufacturers to consumers.
This blog has been edited from the paper, ‘Interoperability in the digital ecosystem’ authored by Urs Gasser. Please click here for the full report. Follow the latest updates from GSR-15 here. Please also visit the webpage of the ITU-T’s Internet of Things Global Standards Initiative.
@ Mr Urs Gasser is the Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and a Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School. His research and teaching activities focus on information law, policy, and society issues.