Black ice and collaboration

February 15, 2009

Ice and bikes do not make a good combination.

My route to work, across a field, became a death trap. There was one particular stretch, some sixty meters long, where getting across with ankles intact became impossible. The ice was thick and treacherous, and – worse – rutted with wheel tracks seemingly designed to send you flying.

Then, on the third day, something amazing happened.

There was a clear path, about twenty centimeters across, straight down the middle of the path, with ice either side. How?

Let’s assume that each cyclist is acting in his/her own interest. That interest is ‘not falling off’. They pick the clearest path. The clearest path is the one with least ice. Wheels create friction as they go, eroding the ice, meaning that the clearest path is the one taken most often by people who went before. 

So – each individual cyclist uses the clearest path, and by doing so, makes it clearer for the next person until the route is safe.

No-one consulted on this. No-one ‘took one for the team’. No-one planned it. Everyone acted independetly in their own interest, and yet, the result was a collaborative solution to a difficult and, initially, intractable problem.

The analogy I’m reaching for here is Open metadata standards. I would argue that it is in the self interest of all cataloguers and indexers to use them – they’re comprehensive, supported by a community, and (most importantly) they mean you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s no need to break your brain creating a model that will accomodate aggregation when IEEE LOM provides one. That alone saves both time and money. 

And by following this self-interest, something collaborative happens that solves an intractable problem. The problem is interoperability, and the solution is standards. Any option that is not based in standards means hitting a wall every time the data has to be exploited in a new environment, which it always, always will be (even if it’s an upgrade to internal/proprietary software). And if there’s a seismic shift in technology, and a new standard is required, well, everyone will be in the same boat – and better solutions to data migration can be generated better, faster, and – compared to converting proprietary formats – much cheaper. That’s the ‘avoiding danger’ part of the analogy – we all want to get through the data management ice patch without breaking our leg.

It’s the one thing no-one ever thinks to say about open standards – they’re good for business. For publishers, I don’t think there’s any excuse left not to use them. 


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Hunter Abegg October 18, 2013

Stephen, I got the first letter and every an individual after EXCEPT Margaret Cho’s. Can you remedy that, please?


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