The nice thing about standards, it’s been said, is that there are so many to choose from.* Though this tongue-in-cheek chestnut might be an exaggeration, it is not grossly so. Thousands of public and private organizations around the world generate specifications for nearly all manner of products, processes and services.
Now comes a serious effort by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers to develop a computer-aided method for analyzing, comparing and testing standards, from the conceptual stage all the way through to implementation and beyond to rounds of updating and revising.
“By applying our approach early, developers can identify possible holes in a standard’s scope for a given use by a particular stakeholder, say a manufacturer, a buyer, or a regulator,” explains Paul Witherell, lead author of a new paper** on the method. “During implementation, our approach can assist in identifying coverage gaps and overlaps between standards’ scopes of coverage.”
NIST researchers have adapted a problem-solving methodology—called the Zachman Framework—originally designed for developing comprehensive blueprints of organizations, depicting all strategic, operational and informational elements as well as the relationships among them. They also borrow precise terminology from the Healthcare Information Technology Standards Body, the U.S. group overseeing the development of standards enabling efficient exchanges of health information.
Dubbed FACTS, for Framework for Analysis, Comparison, and Testing of Standards, the NIST approach should be familiar to reporters. In matrix format—and in multiple levels of increasingly fine detail—standards are evaluated according to the five “w’s” and one “h”: who, what, when, where, why and how.
Starting at the top, with big-picture, enterprise-level views, each question is answered by relevant stakeholder groups. This scrutiny continues through the actors, materials, processes and products associated with a standard. It concludes when stakeholders answer the same questions about the application or implementation of interest.
Top row comparisons of the scopes of standards can help in selecting the right standard for a product, while comparisons at the lower levels can “help address the complexities of implementing multiple standards,” according to the researchers.
In addition to analyzing existing and draft standards, FACTS also supports tests of standards to determine their fitness for an intended purpose. It also supports testing whether a particular product or process actually fulfills the requirements of a standard.
“FACTS is a first step towards formalizing the way in which standards are conceptualized, developed and tested,” the researchers write in the paper introducing their approach.
“We envision a Computer Aided Standards Development tool based on the FACTS methodology, similar to computer aided development tools in other domains such as software and engineering,” explains Rachuri Sudarsan, manager of NIST’s Sustainable Manufacturing Program.
The methodology is described in a new NIST publication, FACTS: A Framework for Analysis, Comparison, and Testing of Standards (NIST IR 7935), available at www.nist.gov/manuscript-publication-search.cfm?pub_id=911275.
*The one-liner has been variously attributed to computer scientists Andrew Tanenbaum and Grace Hopper.
** P. Witherell, S. Rachuri, A. Narayanan and J.H. Lee, FACTS: A Framework for Analysis, Comparison, and Testing of Standards (NIST IR 7935), May 2013. Downloadable from: www.nist.gov/manuscript-publication-search.cfm?pub_id=911275.