Before Washington, D.C., attorney John Mitchell argued a case in front of the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, he wanted to listen to the argument made in a similar case a few weeks earlier. He received sound files on a disc and was told he’d need proprietary software from an Australian firm to hear the testimony.

Being a Mac man, he couldn’t make the Windows software work. “Since I planned to listen to it on the train on my way to New York, I had to borrow someone else’s Windows laptop and ask someone else to play it through the speakers and record it into my iPhone,” Mitchell said.

Governments worldwide “should be as freely accessible to the people as possible,” Mitchell said. Clearly this episode didn’t pass the test.

Too often, government data can’t be shared from agency to agency, much less to ordinary citizens. Proprietary formats can make it virtually impossible to exchange documents, spreadsheets and databases between disparate systems.

But that may be changing. Many nations, most notably the United Kingdom, are adopting open format solutions, meant to enable the ready transfer of data regardless of software or systems.

Global Shift

The U.K. is on the verge of mandating OpenDocument Format (ODF) across all major government functions. (As of press time, a comment period was just coming to a close.) The use of a common format makes it possible to employ a broader range of software: A government office might tap into OpenOffice, for example, instead of a proprietary platform.

“I want to see a greater range of software used, so civil servants have access to the information they need and can get their work done without having to buy a particular brand of software,” Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told the British media.

Open format also would better serve the general population, according to a government statement. “Citizens, businesses and delivery partners, such as charities and voluntary groups, need to be able to interact with government officials, sharing and editing documents. … Users must not have costs imposed upon them due to the document format in which editable government information is shared or requested.”

The Danish Parliament implemented ODF for government in 2011; Portugal in 2012. In Slovakia, all materials from public authorities must be readable ODF. The Netherlands requires ODF format as the standard for reading, publishing and exchanging government information. Malaysia likewise requires the use of ODF in the public sector.

U.S. adoption has been slower. The standout example is Massachusetts, which took an early lead in moving to ODF in 2007.

Flavors of Openness

To appreciate the shift to ODF, it’s important to distinguish between open format and open source, two concepts that often get conflated.

Open format, also known as open platform, refers to the bedrock upon which an IT system is constructed. Open source on the other hand describes software tools developed by collaborative communities and distributed for free. One is infrastructure, the other is an application.

It’s possible to have proprietary software run on an open platform (the data still will be fundamentally accessible by all ODF-based systems). You don’t need open source software, but in practice those who pursue ODF frequently turn to open source software in the spirit of openness and ready interoperability.

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer