A revolution in open standards in government

Something revolutionary has been happening recently in the UK government with regard to open source software, standards and data. Change has been promised before and some commentators have been (entirely correctly) cynical about the eventual result, but it seems that finally we have some concrete results. Not content with a public policy and procurement toolkit for open source software, the Cabinet Office today released a policy on open standards – and unlike many had feared, they have got it right.

Why do open standards matter? Anyone who has attempted to open a Word document of recent vintage in an older version of the same software will know how painful it can be. In the world of search we often have to be creative in how we extract data from proprietary, badly documented and inconsistent formats (get thee behind me, PDF!) – at Flax we came up with a novel method involving a combination of Microsoft’s IFilters and running Open Office as a server (you can download our Flax Filters as open source if you’d like to see how this works). If all else fails it is sometimes possible to extract strings from the raw binary data. However, we generally don’t have to preserve paragraphs, formatting and other specifics – and that is the kind of fine detail that often matters, especially in the government or legal arena. Certain companies have been downright obstructive in how they define their ‘standards’ (and I use that word extremely loosely in this case). The same companies have been accused by many of trying to influence the Cabinet Office consultation process, introducing the badly defined FRAND concept. However, the consultation process has been carefully and correctly run and the eventual policy is clear and well written.

It will be very interesting to see how commercial closed source companies react to this policy – but in the meantime those of us in the open source camp should be cheered by the news that finally, after many false starts and setbacks, ‘open’ really does mean, well, ‘open’.

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