Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On the different types of interoperability and the concept of agricultural data

I have been involved in various instances where interoperability between different sources of content was the main issue - ranging from the early days of enriching the Organic.Edunet Web portal and collections with content from external sources (such as the OER Commons Green collection) to complex content aggregation workflows of heterogeneous data in the context of the agINFRA FP7 project (the project that gave birth to AGINFRA) and a recent contract with UN FAO regarding the status and potential of various levels of interoperability in the fisheries and aquaculture sector. All these instances allowed me to get to know more about metadata schemas and vocabularies, standards for exchanging metadata, digital repositories and how they communicate with each other, mapping and transformation of metadata schemes to another standard etc.

I was recently invited to complete a questionnaire regarding open data standards and that brought me back to the basics; what are the different types of interoperability that exist out there? I could very quickly think of the following:
  • Semantic interoperability, referring to the use of standards for the description (metadata) and the classification (Knowledge Organization Systems such as vocabularies) of data;
  • Technical interoperability, referring to the use of standards for the exchange of data, such as the OAI-PMH standard for metadata but also the use of standard file formats for sharing data (e.g. XML, CSV, JSON etc.);
  • Legal interoperability, referring to the use of standard licensing schemes, which would facilitate the exchange of data in legal terms.
There may be a couple more out there but time is short for such an academic analysis.

 (Image source: https://xkcd.com/927/)

The same questionnaire referred to “standards for food and agriculture data”; but what exactly are agricultural data? One (including me) could argue that there may not be "food and agriculture data" as different data types. I have been through similar discussions in the past; however, it seems that there is no such thing as "food and agriculture data". This only refers to various types of data that are used in the agrifood sector or are produced in the agricultural context. In this context, “standards for food and agriculture data” are the same as the rest of the data, such as the standards applying to economic, statistical, trade, weather forecasts, soil maps, sensor data, weather forecasts, earth observation data, demographic, bibliographic, metadata etc. It is usually only the context that changes - not the standards or the data themselves.

If we accept this generic point of view, then standards like ISO (see for example the ISO/IEC 11179 standard), metadata standards like Dublin Core, file format standards like ODF, classification standards like OWL and linked data standards like RDF could also be applied in the case of agricultural data. The same goes for technical interoperability standards like OAI-PMH and REST APIs; all these can be (and actually are widely) used in the agricultural sector and are essential tools for those of us working with agricultural information and knowledge management.

So, are there really agricultural data and if so, who could name some examples?