On transparency in making standards

William Vambenepe points out some familiar bugs:

  • The mailing lists of DMTF working groups are confidential. Even a DMTF member cannot see the message archive of a group unless he/she is a member of that specific group. The general public cannot see anything at all. And unless I missed it on the site, they cannot even know what DMTF working groups exist. It makes you wonder whether Dick Cheney decided to call his social club of energy company executives a “Task Force” because he was inspired by the secrecy of the DMTF (“Distributed Management Task Force”). Even when the work is finished and the standard published, the DMTF won’t release the mailing list archive, even though these discussions can be a great reference for people who later use the specification.
  • Working documents are also confidential. Working groups can decide to publish some intermediate work, but this needs to be an explicit decision of the group, then approved by its parent group, and in practice it happens rarely (mileage varies depending on the groups).
  • Even when a document is published, the process to provide feedback from the outside seems designed to thwart any attempt. Or at least that’s what it does in practice. Having blogged a fair amount on technical details of two DMTF standards (CMDBf and WS-Management) I often get questions and comments about these specifications from readers. I encourage them to bring their comments to the group and point them to the official feedback page. Not once have I, as a working group participant, seen the comments come out on the other end of the process.

GIS industry standards are made in just such a non-transparent members-only environment. I used to subscribe to the OGC's "mass market" (private archive, but open to subscription) list and tried to engage in some discussion there, but soon realized that although messages from the principals were being cross-posted there, they weren't subscribed themselves and didn't see any responses. I also tried to submit comments to the formal channel and found it to be broken (there's a year long gap in the archives: it could have broken for that length of time without anybody noticing). Now that it's fixed, you can see the public comment process doesn't get much use.

Despite this, the OGC's standards enjoy almost absolute buy-in from non-member GIS specialists, particularly those from the open source community who need something – anything – to counter de-facto standardization on ESRI products.