It’s not really about system interoperability…but it’s a way in

by | Oct 19, 2019 | ICT4D |

“Is your system interoperable with that system? Is that system interoperable with that one over there? We need system interoperability!”

I often hear this and get asked this. And generally, the questioner doesn’t like my response. “What do you mean by system interoperability?”

Usually the person wants to know if the systems can share data. But it tends to be more than that. Most data collection systems used in the humanitarian world can export and import data. But that is usually not what the person is asking. Often they are looking for automatic integration. While they don’t know it, they are asking abut data governance too.

I have come to realise that often the system interoperability question is code for data sharing and data governance. With some effort and creativity, we can get most systems to talk to each other in some way.  It may not be pretty or perfect, but we can figure out a way. The technology is the easy piece, once the non-tech parts are done.

One particularly important step is understanding how each system defines terms. It may see obvious, but it rarely is. You don’t necessarily need to have the same definitions, but you do need to understand how the other defines them.

And then of course you need to think about disagreements. When system A says I’m 23 but system B says I’m 37, which is correct? But even more basic that resolving disagreements, how will each system know what data is in which system? And how often will the systems check with each other? And how will this work in offline environments?

So what appears to be a yes/no question turns out to be a bit more complex. But questions rarely are yes/no aren’t they?

Photo by Clint Adair


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