Interoperability: A common language for sustainable development

August 5, 2020
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Fredy Rodríguez

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Margarita Vaca

August 05, 2020 

What is interoperability?

“Interoperability is the ability to collect data from various sources in a standardized and contextualized way. However, it is more than the form and structure of the data, it is also about solving problems together” (Joined-Up Data Standards Project, 2016). That is, how different organizations exchange their own data in a single format in order to provide a service or achieve a common goal. 

Why is interoperability important?

Interoperability enables processes to be optimized, timely solutions to be provided to the community, and strategic multi-stakeholder partnerships to enhance the use of data and:

  • Reduce time, effort, and expense of data collection;
  • Eliminate the frustration and risks associated with handling incomplete and inconsistent data;
  • Meeting the need for internationally comparable, sustainable and disaggregated data to ensure that no one is left behind;
  • Promote transparency of public and private institutional processes.

What are the dimensions of interoperability?

Technical Interoperability: Widespread adoption of standard data formats and implementation of application programming interfaces (APIs) and connectors that allow access and integration of data from multiple sources. Refers to interfaces, interconnection services, data presentation and exchange, security or accessibility services.

Semantic interoperability: Appropriating a common language that minimizes ambiguity and guarantees the adequate interpretation of individual data elements.

Organizational interoperability: Ensures the coordination and alignment of administrative procedures between the participating organizations in order to justify the exchange of information, establishing the rules without exposing the quality or security of the data.

Source: Centro Latinoamericano de Administración para el Desarrollo, 2019 & Joined-Up Data Standards Project, 2016 

What barriers does interoperability face?

Technological barriers: Use of different information technologies between the institutions that are incompatible to process and exchange data.

Conceptual barriers: Heterogeneity of concepts among interoperable institutions that hinder the adequate standardization of interpretations.

Organizational barriers: Each institution has different organizational and professional structures assigned with different responsibilities and levels of authority.

Barriers arising from laws and regulations: Each country and institution is regulated by a series of laws and regulations that may lead to additional procedures for data sharing. 

Source: IDB, 2019: 24

What are some of the benefits of interoperability?

Interoperability allows:

  • Governments to regulate the fraudulent use of the identity numbers of deceased people as active voters in presidential elections.
  • Governments to focus resources and efforts on the most vulnerable populations and correctly assign the corresponding subsidies, such as conditional cash transfers from state programs.
  • Planners, healthcare managers, directors, medical staff, and administrators can view minimal patient data at any time to optimize healthcare and ensure the correct allocation of resources.
  • Payment methods for access to public transport are diversified, by making additional payment methods compatible with electronic tickets such as debit and credit cards, e-commerce platforms (PayPal) and even printed QR codes and SMS (See The promotion for better travel: How do collection systems help improve urban transport? [SPA])

What is the relationship of interoperability and sustainable development?

Transforming the concept of interoperability from a technical problem to an organizational approach that operates at the national and regional level implies providing better and adequate health services, mitigating the impact of natural disasters, identifying the most vulnerable populations and addressing their needs in a timely manner, and avoiding embezzlement of public resources. 

This represents an opportunity to have complete, disaggregated data that responds to the information demand of the 2030 Agenda, closing data gaps and providing valuable elements for evidence-based decision-making.

Since January 2017, as a result of the UN World Data Forum, the United Nations Statistics Division and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data created the Collaborative on SDG Data Interoperability initiative that in 2018 launched the document Interoperability: A practitioner’s guide to joining up data in the development sector. The guide brings together examples of good practice from across the development sector that highlight the value that interoperable data brings to decision-making across five dimensions:

Source: Own elaboration based on “Interoperability: A practitioner’s guide to joining up data in the development sector”, 2018


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