New IBM healthcare and education initiative driven by open standards

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Today IBM is announcing a major initiative out of our healthcare and education practices that focuses on using open standards to drive growth, interoperability, and innovation. I’m going to spend a lot of time over the next days and weeks deconstructing what we are doing and why. Today I’m going to give you an outline of what we are doing and then, in a separate entry, keep track of some of the early press and web commentary.

First, some details. The press release is here and here, and a podcast I recorded is here. The legal document describing what I am about to talk about is here.

Of all the so-called “vertical industries,” problems in healthcare and education are especially poignant in that they affect us in very personal ways. We can think of this in extreme cases such as when emergency room doctors don’t have the critical patient information they need to treat people quickly and accurately or when people in remote areas get put at a severe learning or career disadvantage because they don’t have the educational resources they need to succeed. Even the simpler cases are annoying, such as having to fill out a form with your medical hisotory for what seems like the millionth time. I don’t know about you, but I seem to keep forgetting things to include. In any case, asking me when I’m ill is not the time to get correct data. There are many reasons why such information and services might not be available, but there is one basic thing that is required: good “plumbing” to make sure that information, both structured and unstructured, enters the system accurately and then can get moved to where it needs to be in reliable, secure, and appropriately private ways.

Does this sound familiar? Haven’t we and many people been talking about web services and, more generally, Services Oriented Architecture, for some time? Haven’t we all spoken about how it will improve efficiency, flexibility, and maintainability of IT systems, including those that span enterprise boundaries? How about all this discussion around the OASIS OpenDocument Format? Isn’t it as ridiculous to expect everyone in a federated healthcare system to use a proprietary document format as it is to expect everyone in a branch of government to do so? Is it permissible to allow even the smallest delay in patient care because someone cannot get information that is stored in a vendor-controlled manner? I don’t think so. Electronic forms is another area that I think is really about ready to break through. We need to get standardized industry forms built on truly open, vendor-independent technology. This exists today, and it’s called the XForms standard from the W3C.

So here’s the deal. We have chosen about 20 working groups or technical committees in 6 established healthcare and educations standards organizations. These groups were all chosen because of the quality and importance of their past work as well as their potential relevance to the sort of thing I described above. So far, very little of that work has built on web services and certainly not on the larger suite of standards like WS-Security. So what we are announcing is fundamentally forward-looking: if these designated groups build their next generation of healthcare and education standards on web services, electronic forms, and open document standards, and they do so within rules of maintaining compatibility and interoperability, then IBM will not assert any of our patents on implementers of these new healthcare and education standards.

As I mentioned at the start, there is a formal document that lays all this out in appropriately legal language. It will be one of the things that I’ll dissect in future entries, but I want to first see some stories and commentary on it. I think it is pretty straightforward, but I’m happy to discuss any questions people might have about it. I just don’t want to guess ahead of time what those might be.

A few things I want to make clear now: we define “web services, electronic forms, and open document standards” by explicitly listing them. The legal language implies that if you are building a next generation education standard on web services and you need security features, then you need to use WS-Security, for example. The intent is to promote the use of these core underlying standards but also to establish the collection of them as a “framework” to use together when any one of them is applicable. The “covered standards” mentioned in the initiative description are the next generation ones to which this initiative applies. There aren’t any covered standards right now (that’s why I called them “next generation”) but they will be added to the list when they meet the criteria. We’ve said that we’ll update that list at least once a year, but we’ll do it as frequently as it makes sense. It could be that our initial list of healthcare and education working groups for these new efforts is too small. We’re glad to consider enlarging it, but the whole collection has to hang together in a consistent way. Finally, this is a global initiative, it is not specific to North America.

We hope this is “positively disruptive.” We hope this drives a lot of discussion and analysis. We hope others join us. We’ve all hoped for a lot of improvements on the IT side of healthcare and education for a long time. We believe that this concrete action will help make some of these hopes become realities.

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