Lots of talk over lunch about whether the political leaders present – seven speakers of national parliaments plus the speaker of the Pan-African Parliamentary Assembly – would indeed agree to sign up to an end of conference political declaration. It took me back to some of the late-night discussions among national party leaders in my work more than ten years ago with the socialist and social-democratic leaders in the European Union.
There were rumours flying around of a possible impasse over wording of the proposed declaration and this came to a head in the afternoon session. Several of us involved in the conference preparation were called upon in turn to address the parliamentary speakers to explain some key concepts. I found this a unique political and professional experience: a real determination to understand the importance of information technologies for their parliaments, and with that a desire to understand the terms to which they associating their political reputations in signing the rpopsoed declaration.
Peter Brown addressing the parliamentary Speakers, with Flavio Zeni, the conference organiser
In the end it seemed to boil down to an (understandble) unease about the phrase concerned with developing an “interoperability framework”: what does it mean? When I consider that in Europe we have yet to really appreciate the political and policy impact of such commitments, I really admired the maturity of politicians wanting to take that plunge into such understanding. It fell to me to try to explain the concept, and I had a couple of minutes in which to do it.
I chose the simplest metaphor that I could think of and that would nonetheless have some resonance to the participants and parliamentary speakers: electrical adaptors.
I asked them how many times they had experienced the phenomenon of arriving in a new country, for a meeting or conference say, arriving late in the hotel and wanting to recharge a mobile phone, plug in a laptop computer or simply have a shave, and realising that your appliances’ plug just doesn’t match the socket. You are not even sure if the electricity supply is the same.
Do you stamp around in a rage complaining about this other country’s different system and insist that they change their entire infrastructure for your convenience? berate them for choosing a standard that is not yours? Or do you reach for your adaptor? Harmonisation just is not a soltuion in situations where there is already considerable and varied infrastruture in place, and is not likely to make you many friends by insisting on trampling on other’s autonomy in a desire to impose a uniform set of standards. The alternative approach is that of interoperability, where each player is sovereign over their own infrastructure development but agrees to expose those parts of their standards to others in suc a way that adaptors can be built to facilitate inter-connection. Interoperability does not force anyone to share anything that they do not want to, but rather provides standardised mechanisms by which things can be shared if there is a will so to do.