Identifiers’ are part of how we make sense of the world and communicate. They act as labels to help us uniquely identify physical and digital objects and services, and as pointers to information available online or stored in a variety of databases and systems.

We all benefit from identifiers in our everyday life. For instance, passports and driver's licences enable us to access services or cross borders, while website addresses help us to find information online. Barcodes on food, books and medicine help us to make purchases, find information, and stay healthy and safe. Businesses also use identifiers to manage product inventory, track sales or monitor investments. In short, they are a vital component of our data infrastructure.

In 2014, Refinitiv (the Financial & Risk division of Thomson Reuters at the time of publication) and the Open Data Institute (ODI) partnered to publish a joint paper on creating value with identifiers. There, we set out the important role of identifiers in enabling access, use and sharing of data, and set out recommendations for the design of new identifier schemes.

A lot has changed in the last seven years. We see increased recognition of the role of shared and open data infrastructure in supporting the access, use and sharing of data. We also see greater adoption of open licences for data from both existing and new identifier schemes, across the private and public sectors, as well as in research and academia.

We know that ‘open’ means different things for different aspects of an identifier scheme, and impacts governance and funding in qualitatively different ways. Finally, we now have greater societal scrutiny of organisations that hold and process the sort of personal data, to which identifiers are often assigned.

In this new paper, written by ODI and Refinitiv this year, we reflect on these changes, their impact on the management of identifiers, and contribute to the wider discussion around creating sustainable, trustworthy identifier schemes. We recognise the importance of design choices, and how they can impact the governance and curation required to maintain an identifier scheme over time.

While the value of identifiers is clear, what is less-well-understood is the investment required to govern identifier schemes so that they can be made sustainable. In our paper we include some observations for the future of sustainable identifiers, based on Refinitiv’s stewardship of PermID identifiers and recent ODI research on the sustainability of data institutions. The latter are organisations whose purpose involves stewarding data on behalf of others, often towards public, educational or charitable aims. Both ‘identifier foundations’ and ‘registration agencies’ are examples of data institutions. Sometimes, a data institution will act as both identifier foundation and registration agency.

We think such observations will be particularly relevant for registration agencies, as well as communities running schemes and identifiers tacitly, looking to formalise the stewardship of the scheme or identifier by establishing a new data institution.

We’re planning to do more work to explore how to assess open, trustworthy data ecosystems, so if you want to discuss the paper, or work with us in other emerging areas then get in touch [email protected]