Data Portability The Antidote to Data ÒLock-InÓ

There was a time in the distant past when you bought a “computer” and it came as a complete and inseparable package. There was no concept of hardware or software. Then came the operating systems UNIX, then the Disc Operating Systems or DOS with Microsoft DOS (MSDOS) and Apple DOS, and a few will even remember CPM. This was revolutionary in that it allowed the separation of the hardware and the software – we had choices, competition and innovation. Software was everything that was not hardware. But as the years went by, we started experiencing problems of backwards compatibility, the ability to access old data with the new versions of a software application. Worse, some software vendors went out of business, even big ones (remember WordStar?) and remember Y2K? Moving data off COBOL programs became an expensive priority. Luckily software applications were relatively simple and data was even simpler. Today data is more complex.

In an environment where the life cycle of software applications used to capture and manage data is but a fraction of the life cycle of the data itself, the issues of data portability and long-term data preservation are critical. Companies are realizing that they must be proactive in protecting their data. Even when data is stored locally and safely backed up, it may not be separable from the software application. In the new software as a service (SaaS) or cloud computing environment where data is stored remotely by the service provider, it may not be separable from the service.

A simple example of this problem can be seen in personal online banking – a great service. It is only when you decide to change banks that you realize you have to re-enter all the information you need to pay your bills. If you thought this was no more than a technical oversight of the banking community, you would be underestimating the time and effort they put into keeping their customers. Customer “lock-in” is a very common commercial practice and frequently an integral part of pricing strategy. Standards are the antidote to lock-in, and this applies to data just as it does to plugs and sockets.

Solving the data lock-in problem requires simple awareness of what it takes to create portable data and requesting or requiring that application and service providers adopt international standards for data quality. Quality data is portable data.

Understanding Data Data is defined as the “symbolic representation of something that depends, in part, on its metadata for its meaning.” It follows, therefore, that the quality of the metadata must play an important part in determining data quality. Metadata gives data meaning. For example, “50-02-01” is a meaningless string of characters, but apply the metadata “Date of Birth” and it becomes meaningful data. To make it unambiguous, we need to have syntax such as CCYY-MM-DD and the associated value becomes 1950-02-01.

Good quality metadata comes from a metadata registry or a technical dictionary. This will contain a definition of the concept. For example, the concept: “Date of birth” has a concept definition of: “year, month and day in which a person or an animal is born,” Even better, an open technical dictionary will assign a language independent public domain concept identifier as, for example, 0161-1#02-065175#1 in the Electronic Commerce Code Management Association (ECCMA) open technical dictionary (eOTD). This allows the data 0161-1#02-065175#1:1950-02-01 to be rendered as either Date of Birth: February 2, 1950 or Date de naissance: 2 Février 1950.

Using quality metadata from an open technical dictionary creates not only quality data in the sense that it is unambiguous, but it also creates portable data – data that can be easily moved from one application to another and preserved over time independently of software. Finally, using pubic domain concept identifiers as metadata protects the intellectual property in the data from claims of “joint work.”

Creation of a “Joint Work” When an operator interacts with a computer, they do so through a software application. As data is keyed into the computer, the software application stores it in electronic form. Close examination of the stored data reveals that it includes not only the characters keyed in by the operator, but also “hidden characters” inserted by the software application. The data is organized according to a structure controlled by the software application. In essence, the data stored in the file (a fixed form in copyright terms) was created through a collaborative effort of the operator that keyed in the data and the owner of the software application; it is a “joint work” where both parties contributed intellectual effort to its creation. The authors of a joint work are co-owners of the copyright in the work, unless there is an agreement to the contrary. Removing or replacing the proprietary metadata or changing the structure of the data is a violation of copyright unless it is done with the permission of the “joint owner.” If the software application includes a feature to export the data in a neutral or portable format, then the resulting data is no longer a joint work.

Claims that an application exports data in XML does address the syntax part of the problem, but that is the easy part. What is required is to be able to export all of the data in a form that can be easily uploaded into another application. This can be a time-consuming and expensive exercise not to be undertaken lightly. An upgrade will always be cheaper; this is the hallmark of a software application lock-in.

Implementing International Standards for Data Portability While ISO 10303 is the standard that defines the neutral exchange format for design manufacturing or production data, ISO 8000 is a more general standard concerned with the principles of data quality, the characteristics of data that determine its quality, and the processes to ensure data quality.

ISO 10303 provides a representation of product information along with the necessary mechanisms and definitions to enable product data to be exchanged between applications as neutral, portable data. ISO 10303 addresses specific engineering environments such as automotive, shipbuilding, aerospace, defense, general manufacturing and plant management. 

ISO 8000 addresses more general data categories. The first parts of ISO 8000 to be published deal specifically with master data – the data that identifies and describes individuals, organizations, locations, goods, services, processes, rules and regulations, the essential and fundamental data of any business.

ISO 8000-110:2008 is the foundation standard for master data quality. Master data that is compliant with the standard is portable data that is formatted according to a published syntax and where the metadata is explicit, either included with the data or by reference to an open technical dictionary.

ISO 8000-120:2009 is a supplement to ISO 8000-110:2008 that covers master data provenance. The standard is designed to assist in tracking the extraction of data elements through to their original source. Implementation of this standard requires knowledge of database management.

ISO 8000-130:2009 is a supplement to ISO 8000-120:2008 that covers master data accuracy. The standard is designed to assist in tracking claims to accuracy of data elements. Implementation of this standard requires knowledge of database management.

Conclusion Requesting or requiring that master data is provided in ISO 8000-110:2008 compliant format is not a burden to the data provider. The requirements of ISO 8000-110:2008 are simple; they require no specialized technology or the purchase of any product or service and are within the capability of all companies regardless of their size. ISO 8000-110:2008 is available from the ANSI eStandards store.

In a world rapidly moving toward SaaS and cloud computing, it really pays to pause and consider not just the physical security of your data but its portability.
As the project leader for ISO 8000, ECCMA has developed a series of ISO 8000-110:2008 compliance certificates for individuals, organizations and their software applications and data services. ECCMA issues certificates and maintains a register of certified individuals, organizations, software applications and software services. More information can be found at


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About Peter Benson

Peter Benson is the Executive Director and Chief Technical Officer of the Electronic Commerce Code Management Association (ECCMA). He is an expert in distributed information systems, content encoding and master data management. He designed one of the very first commercial electronic mail software applications, WordStar Messenger and was granted a landmark British patent in 1992 covering the use of electronic mail systems to maintain distributed databases.

Peter designed and oversaw the development of a number of strategic distributed database management systems used extensively in the UK and US by the public relations and media industries. From 1994 to 1998, Peter served as the elected chairman of the American National Standards Institute Accredited Committee ANSI ASCX 12E, the Standards Committee responsible for the development and maintenance of EDI standard for product data. Peter is known for the design, development and global promotion of the UNSPSC as an internationally recognized commodity classification and more recently for the design of the eOTD, an internationally recognized open technical dictionary based on the NATO codification system. He is the Project Leader for ISO 22745 and ISO 8000 as well as the ISO TC184/SC 4 Quality Committee convener. He is an expert in the development and maintenance of master data quality as well as an internationally recognized proponent of open standards that he believes are critical to protect data assets from the applications used to create and manipulate them. Peter can be reached by email at