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EIF and IDA eLink: advancing e-government interoperability at pan-European level

    IDA has recently released the first draft version of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) and the requirements and specifications for its generic middleware solution, IDA eLink. These two projects, addressing complementary issues, aim to provide a decisive contribution to the interoperable delivery of pan-European e-government services.

Enabling interoperability across borders with the EIF

The European Interoperability Framework, of which a first draft version was published on 22 January 2004 by IDA, aims to support the development of user-centred pan-European e-government services by enabling interoperability between Member States' administrations and with the European institutions. To this end, the Framework defines a set of recommendations and guidelines for e-government services so that public administrations, enterprises and citizens can interact across borders, in a pan-European context.

The purpose of the EIF is not to replace the interoperability frameworks that several Member States have been developing over the last years (e.g. the UK's e-Government Interoperability Framework - e-GIF, the French Common Interoperability Framework, the German Standards and Architectures for e-Government Applications - SAGA, or the Danish 'Reference Profile'). These national frameworks, addressing a number of technical issues (standards and protocols, metadata definitions, document formats, privacy and security, e-signatures, etc.) as well as policy issues (compliance, governance, etc.), remain the main references for public administrations in EU Member States. However, building on these existing frameworks, the EIF supplements them in those areas that cannot be adequately addressed by a purely national approach.

The EIF objective is to identify those measures that need to be incorporated into national programmes to ensure interoperability with public administrations across national boundaries. Member States should then use the guidance provided by the EIF to complement their national e-government interoperability frameworks with a pan-European dimension. In addition, European Union institutions and agencies should also use the EIF for their operations with each other and with citizens, enterprises and Member States' administrations.

The Framework sets a number of general principles, which should be considered for any e-government service to be set up at a pan-European level: accessibility, multilingualism, security, privacy, subsidiarity, use of open standards, assessing the benefits of Open Source Software, and use of multilateral (or 'many-to-many') solutions. Based on these principles, the EIF addresses three distinct interoperability levels that need to be considered for the development of cross-border and pan-European e-government services:

  •  Organisational interoperability, which concerns the definition of business goals and processes by different administrations working together to deliver a service.
  • Semantic interoperability, which refers to the possibility for the precise meaning of exchanged information to be understandable by any application not initially developed for this purpose.
  • Technical interoperability, covering the technical issues of linking-up computer systems, including key areas such as open interfaces, middleware, accessibility and security services.

For each of these levels, the EIF provides a number of recommendations, including the following:

  • E-government services to be provided at pan-European level should be jointly identified and prioritised by the participating administrations via a demand driven approach.
  • Service level agreements should formalise the respective service expectations of administrations cooperating in the provision of pan-European e-government services.
  • Pan-European initiatives to develop common semantics on the basis of XML should be performed in a coordinated way and include cooperation with the existing standardisation bodies.
  • Member States' administrations and EU Institutions should develop and use common guidelines for the technical interoperability of pan-European e-government networks, applications and services on the basis of the IDA Architecture Guidelines. In addition, any common guidelines should be based on recognised open standards.

The current version of the EIF is a draft for consultation, which is meant to inform all stakeholders - public administrations, enterprises and citizens - about progress achieved so far and to enable interested parties to provide feedback and contributions. Following this consultation, the framework will be refined and complemented with a second document addressing the long-term implementation and maintenance of the Framework, as well as the actions supporting its promotion and the development of pan-European e-government services.

The draft EIF can be found on this website.

Empowering interoperation with IDA eLink

Even before further development of the EIF, another IDA project is laying the ground for the future implementation of pan-European services. Beyond a set of standards making information systems interoperable across boundaries, this implementation will indeed require the adequate tools for empowering their effective interoperation at an affordable cost. A way to achieve this is to set up a generic middleware capable of interfacing between multiple information systems across organisational and even national boundaries. A "middleware" is a software layer which role is to mediate between distributed and heterogeneous applications or information systems while providing a set of generic services (messaging, directories, security, authentication, transaction, etc.) that can be used by multiple applications. In the context of electronic service delivery, a middleware can provide the glue between multiple front-end interfaces or delivery channels and multiple back-end legacy applications and systems.

IDA has undertaken to develop such a generic middleware solution, which is known as IDA eLink. Its objective is to support seamless electronic data exchange between public administrations as well as between them and citizens and businesses.

IDA eLink is being built up on the basis of the Swedish Government's eLink (GeL) project. GeL is a set of specifications defining a number of generic services, which can be used to build interoperable "information exchange servers". When widely installed, these servers constitute a "distributed middleware infrastructure" enabling seamless and secure interoperation between public sector bodies while leaving them full autonomy regarding their own deployment. In 2002, IDA performed a study which successfully assessed the feasibility of applying the Swedish concept in a pan-European context.

Following this positive assessment, detailed requirements and specifications have been developed for the IDA eLink, which were published at the end of 2003. These documents further define the basic functionalities of IDA eLink (messaging service and directory mechanism) and its set of generic services: service identification, reliable and secure message transfer, synchronous and asynchronous mode of operation, agreement handling, message tracking, large file transfer, and global monitoring. The specifications make use of the concepts developed in Sweden (GeL project) and of specifications for a secure transport layer developed in Germany (OSCI).

On the basis of these specifications, an eLink toolkit is being built and some demonstrators (pilots) are now being run. This pilot phase, which is due to be completed by mid 2004, will lead to a revision of the specifications and a full packaging of the toolkit (including licensing and documentation) based on open source software.

The IDA eLink requirements and specifications can be found on this website.

Article published in the IDA Report 21 - March 2004