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Front Page » May 15, 2012 » Opinion » Information freedom in the digital world
Published 706 days ago

Information freedom in the digital world


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By Jason Bailey
Sun Advocate IT manager

Recently one of my coworkers received an important document by way of email that turned out to be far more trouble for them than it should have been. When they tried to view the attachment, their computer complained that it could not open the file.

As the resident computer nerd in the office, I was asked to take a look at it to see if I could get it open. The problem turned out to be a matter of software compatibility. The file was meant for a particular version of an application that they simply did not have on their computer. We just haven't had any incentive to upgrade some of our aging licenses and have instead been using LibreOffice, a free offshoot of what used to be called StarOffice many years ago.

Fortunately I was able to remedy the situation relatively easy and managed to open the file for my frustrated coworker, but it wasn't without some ire on my part - the irony of the whole ordeal was that a government office had sent us public information in an electronic file that could only be viewed (accurately) with a piece of commercial computer software that we simply did not want to buy.

I'm sure that most people only buy upgrades to their office suite or word processing software of choice when they absolutely have to. The first version of Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect that they purchased a decade ago probably did everything they needed it to. I'd wager that it probably still does everything they need it to do today, too.

The reality of the matter is that most people just don't need all of the extra bells and whistles that come bundled with these new applications. The biggest reason that most people find themselves buying upgrades again and again is because today's computer systems just don't like the old versions of the software. Compatibility issues end up coercing people into purchasing the latest and greatest version to ensure that they can still open all of their documents. I would bet that the same is largely true with most government organizations as well.

I realize that most local, state and federal government organizations in the United States don't use free office suites like OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice. Instead, they use commercial office suites like Microsoft Office, Corel WordPerfect or Lotus Notes, and that's totally fine by me. What isn't fine is that the documents created by these office suites often don't open correctly in anything else but the program they were made in. In other words, if a business or citizen requests public information and wants it provided in digital form, there is a chance that they may not be able to view it if they haven't purchased the same version of Microsoft Word that the particular government office uses.

Because of the technical issues that commercial software issues may cause for businesses and citizens alike, I am of the firm opinion that all forms of government should be utilizing open, royalty-free file standards like Open Document Format (ODF) and Portable Document Format (PDF) (particularly for document archiving) as much as possible, when they are technically able to do so.

In many countries throughout the world, governments have chosen to use open standards - file formats that are not married to any one software vendor. Such policies increase the public's access to government information, and creates more competition among software makers who are vying for government contracts. It's a win-win for the public, which is really what it's all about, isn't it?

office suites like Microsoft Office, Corel WordPerfect or Lotus Notes, and that's totally fine by me. What isn't fine is that the documents created by these office suites often don't open correctly in anything else but the program they were made in. In other words, if a business or citizen requests public information and wants it provided in digital form, there is a chance that they may not be able to view it if they haven't purchased the same version of Microsoft Word that the particular government office uses.

Because of the technical issues that commercial software issues may cause for businesses and citizens alike, I am of the firm opinion that all forms of government should be utilizing open, royalty-free file standards like Open Document Format (ODF) and Portable Document Format (PDF) (particularly for document archiving) as much as possible, when they are technically able to do so.

In many countries throughout the world, governments have chosen to use open standards - file formats that are not married to any one software vendor. Such policies increase the public's access to government information, and creates more competition among software makers who are vying for government contracts. It's a win-win for the public, which is really what it's all about, isn't it?

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