May 12, 2005

IDABC: Toward a digitally interoperable Europe

Author: Marco Fioretti

The European Union program for Interoperable Delivery of eGovernment Services to Administrations, Businesses and Citizens
(IDABC) promotes the correct use of information and communication technologies (ICT) for cross-border services in Europe. Several IDABC
activities have a sensible, although indirect, impact on the wider adoption of free and open source software (FOSS) in the European
Union; in fact, promotion of open source software and applications has been a long-term IDABC goal since 1999.

Among other things, IDABC maintains an official Open Source
Observatory
which, in the context of encouraging best practices in
Europe, introduces the concepts of OSS. This Web site lists facts and
resources for public administration managers interested in moving away
from proprietary products. It includes several detailed case studies
of FOSS adoption in member states. Public employees and managers new
to these concepts can also find an inventory of non-proprietary
software for egovernment.

FOSS is just one of several tools for this organization. The core mission of IDABC is to provide recommendations and services that
enable public administrations of
different EU countries to communicate quickly and effectively with each other.
Interoperable digital services are just one of the eEurope
objectives of modernizing the whole European public sector. Some
projects only cover specific policies, while others, called Horizontal
Measures (HM), implement infrastructure and egovernment services not
linked to any single area, or cover other strategic and support
activities. IDABC also provides financing to external projects
targeting the same goals.

The most
relevant projects and measures
are described in printable fact
sheets which you can request by sending an email message to
idabc@cec.eu.int. Translations to EU languages should be available in
the upcoming months.

To learn more about IDABC, NewsForge spoke with Bernhard Schnittger, IDABC's Acting Head of Unit, who is responsible for programs such as European Interoperability Framework, Mobility Case Study, and Architecture Guidelines.

NewsForge: Has IDABC activities already had an impact on the
software choices of European IT managers in public administrations and
private organizations?

Schnittger: We hope so. The EU's own private IP network
providing Trans-European
Services for Telematics Administrations
(TESTA), started in 1996,
is growing quickly, with total network traffic growing by an average
30% per month. Applications such as the Communication and
Information Resource Center Administrator
(CIRCA) are also widely
used within commission and member states. Our initiatives and studies
on interoperability topics have raised the awareness of the
requirements for interoperable cross-border services in member states
and EU institutions.

NewsForge: Do you already use open source software, such as
OpenOffice.org, in your daily work?

Schnittger: IDABC is not an IT department. We use the
software supplied by the Commission's IT department. The default is Microsoft
Office at the moment. IDABC staff, however, is free to use the
installed OpenOffice.org package.

NewsForge: If a software company has a product of interest
to a European public administration -- for example, a database or
document management system -- how could it check whether that product
complies with IDABC guidelines?

Schnittger: There is no "certification" for the compliance
to IDABC guidelines, in line with the scopes of the European
Interoperability Framework (EIF).

NewsForge: What exactly is the purpose of the EIF?

Schnittger: It is an IDABC guideline
that prescribes the principles of pan-European collaboration on
egoverment services. It was initiated to implement the requirements of
the eEurope Action
Plan
. By design, it is at such a generic level that, with the
exception of the principle of open standards, it is barely applicable
to particular products.

NewsForge: Speaking of open standards, recently the BSA criticized
the European Union's open standards policy
. What is your position
on their comments?

Schnittger: Coordination and standardization for egovernment
is a complex field, with many stakeholders involved. IDABC develops
its guidelines in a consultation process with the member states. In
this context IDABC also discusses its documents with industry
representatives. BSA is one voice among a wide variety of critical as
well as supporting comments IDABC received in reaction to the
EIF. IDABC is carefully considering this input, but its own
perspective will remain one of an IT user taking into account the
special requirements of egovernment.

NewsForge: The file format of the latest versions of
Microsoft Office competes directly with the OpenDocument
standard specified by OASIS. OpenDocument will be the default file format in the 2.0 release of OpenOffice.org. What is the IDABC
position on these office document formats?

Schnittger: IDABC supports the idea of open document formats
to be used for exchange between administrations and between
administrations and their customers. For more information on our
position, you may consult our page titled "Promoting an Open
Document Format
." IDABC has established a working group to promote
awareness and exchange experiences, offering a discussion forum
between Microsoft and industrial players in the field.

NewsForge: Does IDABC have an official position about the
software patents issue which is still being debated before top EU
institutions?

Schnittger:q IDABC's interest in patent rights is limited to
the aspect of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) in European
egovernment standards. The EIF recommends the use of "open standards,"
and provides a definition of open standards which insists that IPRs
must be "irrevocably made available on a royalty-free basis."

Conclusion

IDABC may play a crucial role in the ICT future of the European
Union. Its focus on interoperability and open standards, rather than
any particular product or family of products, could have a beneficial
effect on free and proprietary software alike.

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