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A roadmap to sustainable open identifier schemes

Toni McDerment
Toni McDerment
Director, Refinitiv Data Model at Refinitiv

Open identifiers are key to capital markets’ data infrastructure and are growing in number and strength as the industry acknowledges their potential value. A report by Refinitiv and the Open Data Institute (ODI) notes that to be sustainable in the long term, identifier schemes must balance openness and independence with financial viability. This, it says, is no mean feat.

  1. Open identifier schemes are growing in number, strength and potential value to users.
  2. Viable sustainable schemes consider interrelated issues of governance, cost and revenue.
  3. User communities must be engaged in creating sustainable schemes designed to provide value.

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The Refinitiv report Sustainable stewardship of open identifiers follows an initial 2014 paper authored by Thomson Reuters and the ODI, Creating value with identifiers in an open data world. This paper provided a guide to identifier schemes and started the conversation about how identifiers can create value.

Trends in open identifiers

The paper reviews trends related to open identifiers over the past six years, and looks forward to consider the level of governance and investment required to ensure identifiers can be sustainably created, accessed, used and shared.

It notes the value of open identifiers in data integration, identifying fraud, supply chains and infrastructure transparency, and warns that a lack of common identifiers lowers data quality and hinders decision making.

By way of example, the paper highlights the 2008 financial crisis, caused by a lack of common identifiers for risk management that could have identified financial institutions’ exposures to counterparties, and followed by mandated development of the global Legal Entity Identifier (LEI) system.

The paper’s stated goal is to contribute to wider discussion around creating sustainable, trustworthy identifier schemes that will strengthen shared data infrastructure over the long term.

Download the report now: Sustainable stewardship of open identifiers

A six-year review into open identifiers

Key trends of the past six years identified in the report include:

  • A move towards open persistent identifiers as a means of improving data management and sharing data – these include identifiers such as the LEI and Refinitiv PermID.
  • Growing use of platforms such as Wikidata as clearing houses to maintain mappings between identifier schemes, and the role of resolutions services such as
  • The importance of context and documentation of identifier schemes to ensure an understanding of provenance, and ethical use and reuse of data from multiple sources for a range of applications.

Exploring sustainability of identifier schemes

On the basis of the 2014 publication, the report moves on to explore the sustainability of identifier schemes.

It lists five characteristics of identifiers, with each needing to be: unique, persistent, useful, trustworthy and open, and notes that these characteristics are interdependent. Decisions on how to implement them play a role in determining a scheme’s governance and funding.


Typically, identifier schemes have four elements of governance, all of which have associated costs for stakeholder coordination, process management, and development and maintenance of technical and data infrastructure. The areas are:

  • Overall governance of the scheme – to allow its design, including data standards, to be adapted to new user needs or decide which organisations are permitted to assign identifiers
  • The process of assignment – to allocate new identifiers to relevant objects either centrally by a single organisation, or via a federation of collaborating organisations, or in a decentralised way, in which permitted organisations create their own identifiers as required
  • Managing the identifier register – the register may be a list of identifiers with descriptive and administrative metadata, or a more complex database of information about each object in the register
  • Supporting services – to facilitate use of the identifiers and the scheme such as APIs, matching services, and identifier lookup functionality.

The table below shows a comparison of scheme governance.

An illustrative comparison of scheme governance

An illustrative comparison of scheme governance. Open identifiers

Refinitiv PermID

An example of a centralised scheme, with a centralised register, identifier lookup and metadata search APIs, is Refinitiv PermID, which uniquely identifies objects in the Refinitiv Information Model, such as organisations, instruments, funds, and people.

The identifier was initially developed for internal use to allow data from separate systems to be shared on an enterprise basis. It soon became clear that clients needed the same solution, and the identifier was made available via It has since been widely adopted by users to link data sets and access metadata.

Standards development and data governance, as well as identifier assignment, are run internally by Refinitiv, which is the sole source of funding for the scheme.

As the PermID user community grows, evolving the scheme to further meet its needs could support client retention and growth. One way to do this could be to make the scheme’s standards and governance more open. For instance, third-party minting and third-party maintenance would allow users to create and maintain PermIDs.

This would also create new complexities in governance: different clients might prioritise different or conflicting needs that may not align with those of Refinitiv. Navigating these complexities is likely to raise tough questions around long-term governance and funding.

Funding of identifier schemes

Sustainability of identifier schemes depends on funding, but also factors such as stakeholder and product management, and data governance and policies.

The ODI’s research into data institutions – frequently called foundations, registration agencies, or business registers – describes three requirements for sustainability:

  • A sustainable revenue model underpinned by a mix of revenue streams
  • Continued demand for identifiers from users and the end users they serve
  • Sufficient governance for the organisation’s aims to be delivered over time.

Financial stability is the most important input to sustainable identifier schemes, although the level of investment required varies depending on scheme design and whether a scheme is new or established.

Revenue sources include earned revenue, perhaps from provision of transactional services or membership fees, and non-earned revenue, such as grants, donations, and sponsorships.

Most data institutions use a mix of revenue streams to pay for activity related costs such as data management and identifier assignment, as well as resource costs of staff and physical assets.

The long-term aim is cost recovery, which can be achieved in a variety of ways, but is secondary to the need for long-term, sustainable revenue and funding models if identifier schemes are to fulfil their role as infrastructure.

Further points of discussion

The paper concludes with observations from its research that could inform further discussion and exploration of sustainable identifier schemes:

  • The governance and costs of identifier schemes should be considered together as they are interrelated, while the governance of a scheme needs to be independent of its data delivery mechanism
  • Open data and open standards affect the sustainability of identifier schemes in different ways
  • Independent stewardship can support the sustainability of identifier schemes
  • Tensions between cost recovery mechanisms and the type of organisation stewarding a scheme need to be addressed
  • The user community must be engaged in efforts to create sustainable schemes designed to provide value.

In summary, to be an important and sustainable part of data infrastructure, identifier schemes need to balance openness and independence with financial viability.

Download the report now: Sustainable stewardship of open identifiers