By Clare Naden
Nearly five thousand meetings are held each year somewhere around the world to develop ISO international standards, bringing together experts from all four corners of the earth. With COVID-19 bringing travel to a standstill, the standards world went completely online, literally overnight. The result: more expertise, more voices and, ultimately, better standards.
From artificial intelligence to zinc alloys, ISO has more than 300 technical committees composed of hundreds of thousands of experts from virtually every country in the world. Together, they are responsible for more than 23,000 international standards, with many more in development. But when the pandemic was announced in March, ISO’s committees had to make changes to their way of working—fast.
“We normally meet face-to-face twice a year,” says Wael William Diab, chair of the ISO/IEC joint technical subcommittee on artificial intelligence (AI). “But we knew we couldn’t just replicate the planned meeting minute-by-minute.
“Overly long meetings online just don’t work for anyone. So we found a way to be more efficient, more targeted, and streamlined and the result was that we made significant positive progress, and consensus was achieved in many areas.”
What was originally a week-long, all-day, face-to-face event turned into several two-hour online meetings involving all 220 participants from 28 countries, including one new member, in rotating time slots spread over two weeks. Highly topical areas within big data and AI were discussed, and many projects were progressed. It all went, according to Diab, “better than expected.”
“There was a great team spirit, a shared objective, and the results were clear.”
This was just one of more than 2,000 in-person meetings that were planned from mid-March to the end of August 2020 for ISO committees, all of which were rapidly moved online as the pandemic struck.
For the AI committee, this meant mere weeks to get everything ready and everyone on board. It entailed a dramatic change to the agenda, taking into account the needs and topics of multiple working groups and time zones and making sure there were no overlaps. The new meeting plan allowed for some much-needed flexibility for participants to deal with other work, knowing that the situation was stressful for everyone.
The meetings were held to advance the development of international guidance documents and standards in important areas that affect us all in relation to AI, such as data aspects, use cases, applications, trustworthiness, computational techniques, governance implications, AI intelligent systems engineering, and more.
Jochen Fornather, manager of ISO’s subcommittee for reinforced plastics pipes and fittings, said their recent online meetings were equally successful, attracting greater participation and solid engagement.
“We are working on a new standard and technical specification as well as revising existing standards in the field of glass-fiber-reinforced plastic piping systems, so there was a lot to discuss,” Fornather says. “The agenda was tightened, much was prepared in advance, and the result was many more people than usual attending and all objectives achieved. We will definitely consider this approach even beyond the current pandemic.”
The feedback from the 500 or so other ISO meetings held online so far during this period was similarly positive, meaning the standards community has been successfully continuing the debate, discussion, and development of standards everywhere. Although it is unclear how long these meetings will continue to be held virtually, or what the post-pandemic world will look like, the ISO family has proven that standards will always pull through.
“AI is a hot subject and our program of work reflects that in its size and growth, so running an effective and efficient meeting with more than 200 delegates in virtual format was no mean feat,” notes Diab.
“But there were heartwarming displays of community, great resilience and engagement from our experts. And to top it off, there were no embarrassing moments where three-year-olds suddenly barged into the room,” he adds, smiling.
“And while we hope the world returns to normal soon, meeting virtually is certainly a format we know we can use in the future.”
ISO has been trialing a virtual standards development platform to enable the entire process to be done remotely where required. It intends to roll this out as a more widely available option sometime in 2021.
About the author
Clare Naden is news and communications specialist at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).