Profile: Karen Higginbottom

Chair of ISO/IEC JTC 1: Information Technology

By Janice Blondeau

Karen Higginbottom has been Chair of ISO/IEC JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1: Information technology since November, 2008 and she has participated in the Committee since 1992. In 2012, Higginbottom was recognized with the Thomas Edison award for her leadership and dedicated work with ISO/IEC JTC 1. e-tech spoke to Higginbottom about her role as Chair of JTC 1, how things have evolved and future priorities.

Karen Higginbottom, Chair of ISO/IEC JTC 1 since November 2008
Karen Higginbottom, Chair of ISO/IEC JTC 1 since November 2008

Keeping ahead of the curve

e-tech: What is JTC 1 working on and what do you see as priorities?

Higginbottom: There are always a significant number of JTC 1 activities taking place. Some of them have been long-established such as character code sets or programming languages. In more recent activities, we began a lot of work on cloud computing standards and there’s new work going on with data centres so that the IT industry can be responsive to their energy needs.

Some of the technologies we deal with are evolving. For example, we have an activity with AIDC (Automatic Identification and Data Capture) where that is the case.  It started from a practical standpoint with bar code technology, then expanded into RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification)and now it’s being considered as a fundamental part of The Internet of Things. There’s a lot of effort concentrating on that work right now.

Strategy is key

We have a Special Working Group on Strategy at JTC 1 and they take the pulse of industries and where technologies are headed. We use this as the basis to investigate if technologies are at the point where standardization makes sense. If the technology seems to be at that point, then we create a white paper that outlines the opportunities for standardization and whether JTC 1 is the appropriate place for that work to take place.

A changing environment

e-tech: What are some of the challenges that JTC 1 faces?

Higginbottom: Some of the challenges that JTC 1 faces are making certain that we reflect market requirements and that our efforts are responsive to market needs. We work strenuously to ensure that our activities result in global, voluntary, technology-driven standards. In the IT community, we are especially concerned about the interoperability of all the pieces, making sure that the standards can come together to solve real problems.

For a long time, the development of Standards was viewed just as “geek work”. Now, because of procurement and cultural issues, there’s a lot of competition for different types of standards among a broad range of organizations. A major challenge of JTC 1 is to be seen as a partner to those organizations. It’s important to ensure that we work collaboratively with other standards development organizations and consortia so that even the pieces that aren’t developed in JTC 1 can take advantage of the JTC 1 standards and vice versa.

JTC 1 pushing the envelope

e-tech: What do you do to try and keep JTC 1 agile and relevant?

Higginbottom: It’s very important that we try to be responsive and flexible and that our work evolves as technology evolves. For the MPEG work, another area where JTC 1 is well known – this work is done almost as if the standards participants are part of a larger development team. Their mode of operating is reminiscent of an R&D lab – they build things, they test them out, and then everybody comes back together and decides where there need to be changes.

I think that JTC 1 appreciates the flexibility that our committee is being allowed to develop standards. This flexibility helps us stay relevant and bring value to the standards world. Both IEC and ISO have shown that they value JTC 1 and both organizations have been very supportive.

We have our own procedural supplement to the ISO/IEC directives. Some of this is because, in some cases, ISO and IEC procedures are different. But, in other efforts, both within the technology areas and the process areas, JTC 1 sort of pushes the envelope. And I would say that right now, both IEC and ISO value the way we sometimes see things.

IT standardization and developing countries

E-tech: Are there some other challenges?

Higginbottom: In the beginning, the IT standardization effort was primarily led and managed by an identifiable number of large companies concerned with multi-national requirements. But more and more, developing countries are trying to figure out how they can use the technology to enhance their IT infrastructures and get better social networking off the ground. So it’s important that we engage more of the developing countries in our programmes. It’s important that a broader set of requirements are taken into consideration when developing the standards so that all users determine JTC 1 is the place to come to and, that with their engagement, their IT standardization needs will be met.

Another challenge we face in JTC 1 is that different organizations have a different view of when to undertake standardization.  So, there’s a balancing act that takes place as standards developers decide where, in the bell-shaped curve of technology development, is the right “window” for standardization.

Systems approach to IT standardization

e-tech: How does a systems approach impact on JTC 1’s work?

Higginbottom: I don’t think that JTC 1’s approach is exactly the same as the one used by the SMB (Standardization Management Board). We may have a slightly different “take” in information technology because we’ve always had to have an approach that deals with standards as though they are part of a larger system.

For example, we have SC (Subcommittee)17: Smart cards (Cards and personal identification), SC 27: IT security techniques, and SC 37: Biometrics. There are many times when all three of these groups need to be working together, for example, so that smart cards can perform the comparisons of biometric samples (such as fingerprints) that are required. There’s a lot of thinking that goes into having an interoperable, system response.

It has been in the JTC 1 mission statement since 1996 that we develop the building blocks of standardization that need to be brought together to develop system answers – recognizing a total system approach for information technology.

New website for JTC 1

e-tech: Could you tell us about the new JTC 1 website?

Higginbottom: I’m very excited about the new website! The website resulted from IEC and ISO together responding to a request that the visibility and branding of JTC 1 have a higher profile. With all of our engagement with the various implementers and consortia, we’d like to be able to have outreach to a greater number of people.

The new JTC 1 website showcases the work of JTC 1, highlighting the types of solutions possible from the JTC 1 standards that are developed. It explains our on-going work, as well as how the Committee works. Information is presented in a clear, easy-to-follow, modern format so even people new to IT standardization can determine where best they can engage in JTC 1 activities.

Karen Higginbottom, Chair of ISO/IEC JTC 1 since November 2008 Karen Higginbottom, Chair of ISO/IEC JTC 1 since November 2008
JTC 1 seeks to reflect market requirements with global, voluntary, technology-driven standards JTC 1 seeks to reflect market requirements with global, voluntary, technology-driven standards
The new JTC 1 website presents the wide range of IT standardization activities of the Committee The new JTC 1 website presents the wide range of IT standardization activities of the Committee