Interoperability (pronounced IHN- tuhr -AHP- uhr -uh-BIHL- ih -tee) is the ability of different systems, devices, applications or products to connect and communicate in a coordinated way, without effort from the end user. Functions of interoperable components include data access, data transmission and cross-organizational collaboration regardless of its developer or origin.  Similar to compatibility, interoperability helps organizations achieve higher efficiency and a more holistic view of information.

Interconnected systems can vary in degree of interoperability. Types of interoperability include:

  • Syntactic interoperability: Systems that can communicate successfully through compatible formats and protocols. Tools that facilitate syntactic interoperability are recognized formatting standards, such as XML and SQL. This is also sometimes referred to as structural interoperability.
  • Semantic  interoperability : This is the ability of systems to exchange and accurately interpret information automatically. Semantic interoperability is achieved when the structure and codification of data is uniform among all systems involved.
  • Cross-domain or cross-organization interoperability: This refers to the standardization of practices, policies, foundations and requirements of disparate systems. Rather than relating to the mechanisms behind data exchange, this type only focuses on the non-technical aspects of an interoperable organization.

Data exchange between applications, databases and IT systems is crucial for the growth of modern technology, such as the IoT. Approaches to improving or achieving interoperability include conducting compatibility tests, engineering products with a common standard and using the same technology, coding language or syntax across multiple systems when appropriate.

Interoperability by industry

Healthcare: Within the healthcare ecosystem, interoperability is used to optimize and standardize the quality of medical care. This industry relies on multiple sources of information, such as laboratories, clinics, pharmacies, hospitals and primary care providers, which use multiple systems to record this information. Therefore, health information technology systems should be interoperable to allow the relevant exchange of electronic health records (EHR) and more comprehensive healthcare to patients.

Telecommunications: In telecommunications, interoperability is when different services are able to operate effectively and accept services from other systems. Components of telecommunication compatibility are typically signal availability, scale of the network, frequencies and equipment coverage. For example, interoperability is needed for successful communication of two-way radios. ITU-T is the standard used in international telecommunications to achieve interoperability.

Software: Interoperability in software refers to the functionality of different programs to exchange information, share files and use the same protocols. Java is often considered a highly interoperable programming language for software as it can run and execute on any program with a Java virtual machine (JVM).

Search: Search interoperability allows users to accurately collect information from multiple sources using only one query. This allows organizations to make more effective use of large amounts of data and supports data mining.

Military and public safety: In this setting, interoperability is defined as the ability for multiple sectors of law enforcement to communicate effectively during emergencies, standardize training efforts or coordinate the execution of tasks.

Government: Exchange of electronic data between multiple government organizations across the world can be difficult. Interoperability helps close the gap created by language barriers and varying format specifications to help public administrations collaborate.

Benefits of interoperability

  • Lower cost associated with interoperable systems as fewer resources and additional maintenance is required.
  • Access to information can be given to all appropriate stakeholders.
  • Quality of data is improved as more sources can be brought together.
  • Minimizes time needed to process data, thus increasing organizational efficiency.
This was last updated in February 2019

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