Open Documents are Good for Texas

Currently if you get some document from a Texas office or agency, dollars to doughnuts it comes in some proprietary word processing format. If you want to use this document, you either have to purchase the software that matches that document, or gamble that the software you like may have reverse engineered the proprietary format and won't fumble the document too much.

I don't like it when the state tells me which software I should buy.

It would be wonderful if state used open, non-proprietary formats to store their documents. Instead of letting the state to dictate which software we should use, we could choose whichever product works best for our needs. Proprietary formats create an unfair state mandate. Open formats trust to markets to deliver the best solution.

All of us already know the benefits of open document standards. Every time we open a document on the web, we get a document in an open, standard format called HTML. Most recent versions of HTML are layered on a basic technology called the Extensible Markup Language, or XML. XML is a widely embraced, leading standard for storing structured documents.

Why can't we take the benefits that an open XML standard brings to web documents and apply them to word-processing documents?

The answer is, we can. There currently is a standard called OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications or OpenDocument for short, or ODF for even shorter. I'm not endorsing ODF, but rather citing it as an example that works right now. Other standards are possible, and that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, just so long as they are open and vendors can make their products interoperable.

There currently is a bill in the Texas legislature that would require Texas use an XML-based, open, non-proprietary format for its documents. The bill does not mandate the ODF format—or any other particular format. Instead, it calls for open standards, and allows for markets to select the technologies and software that work best.

The Texas Open Document bill is called SB 446 in the Senate and HB 1794 in the House. The bills have been referred to committee and are scheduled for hearing this Tuesday Monday (corrected 3/26).

If you have a chance take a look at the following two committees:

If your state senator or representative sites on one of these committees, consider shooting them a quick fax or email this weekend to let them know that you think open document formats would be good for Texas.

Comments

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re: Open Documents are Good for Texas

Well said, Chip.

My state rep's on the committee. I just sent him a message, borrowing a few paragraphs from your post.

re: Open Documents are Good for Texas

Well, if we only used Microsoft Office that would be the standard and we wouldn't have to suffer the pain of using Open Office...

re: Open Documents are Good for Texas

In principle I'm for anything that busts the near-monopoly of certain software companies, but there's something about this proposal which makes me a bit nervous.

If I want to provide the best service to my users, I think about the total end-to-end user experience, which may include a lot of unpleasant but necessary tradeoffs -- like sometimes going with formats or software choices which are less than ideal but which have a large established user base.

If I'm running a state agency (or a business or a non-profit or my personal blog) and I want to hand a user a document, I want the user to be able to get into the document now, not at the end of a research project -- particularly not if I have a responsibility to serve less tech-savvy users.

Is there something I'm not understanding which would prevent this idea from turning into a usability nightmare?

re: Open Documents are Good for Texas

I totally agree with you ... and find myself wondering what would entice the powers-that-be to adopt this. Cost/benefit ... what's the carrot?

What came to mind is how, if/when such documents can be discovered and access via web, offices can have a terminal that would allow folk to print out what they need ... after having found it by themselves, freeing up HelpDesk-type personnel. (Free to read; cost recovery for printing.)

If ever there were an effective participatory deliberation process (my hobby-horse; sorry) then such an infrastructure would of course include feedback and discussion. OpenAccess in the truest sense, no?

re: Open Documents are Good for Texas

A usability nightmare in what sense, Prentiss? ^_^ If you're looking for the total end-to-end user experience, you can't just look at the preferences and practices of your user base at a given point in time, particularly with government documents.

Government records aren't the same thing as blog, or even nonprofit documents. You should also consider offering services to the broadest possible base, which may involve trade-offs that are not necessarily the most "usable" for even a majority of citizens at a particular time. (I'm using usable in a way that is synonymous with most convenient, in the sense that most users will be used to that particular application.)

More importantly, though, you should also look at uses through time. What serves a user base now will not be what serves a user base a few years from now. Government documents, in particular, should be accessible for the long haul- and not just because there are legal requirements related to that accessibility. Heck, there's a class in our school that talks about a lot of these issues (Pat's Problems with the Permanent Retention of Electronic Records). Proprietary formats make that very, very difficult.

Of course, it's all digital. There's no compelling reason we shouldn't be able to offer both.