Foot in the Door

Foot in the Door

by / July 31, 2006

First it was Massachusetts. Now it's Minnesota. What's with these "M" states and open standards?

Peter Quinn started it. As CIO of Massachusetts and director of the state's Information Technology Division (ITD), Quinn took the lead in shepherding the Bay State's Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM) through the creation process.

The ETRM articulated an enterprise architecture for Massachusetts' IT systems, and contained a series of "open initiatives" to ensure state agencies procured interoperable IT systems to share their data more easily and better serve their constituencies.

Everything seemed fine and dandy, until the ITD announced in September 2005 that agencies in the executive branch of state government would switch to the OpenDocument format (ODF) for all office documents. Of course, that also meant that all executive branch agencies would need to switch to word processing, spreadsheet and database software that creates documents in ODF.

All sorts of well documented political hell broke loose as mainstream media cast the switch as a Massachusetts versus Microsoft gambit, because the company's Office suite does not support ODF. Files created in Microsoft Office use a proprietary format.

Quinn explained the decision in testimony before the Massachusetts' Senate: "Unlike documents created in ODF, documents created in proprietary formats will be inaccessible centuries from now because the ability to read them is tied to certain proprietary software. If history is our guide, today's applications will be as hard to locate in 100 years as Selectrix [sic] typewriters are today."

Quinn submitted a letter of resignation in December 2005, just a few months after the ODF announcement.

Now another state has signaled its interest in open standards to protect state data. In March 2006, state Rep. Paul Thissen introduced a bill in Minnesota's Legislature that would direct the state's Office of Enterprise Technology to make sure state agencies don't purchase or create data processing devices or systems that don't comply with open standards for accessing, storing or transferring data.

The states' rationale is simple: To free government documents from proprietary formats and the proprietary applications tied to those formats so John Q. Public can access those documents, no matter what word processing application is on his computer.

Time will reveal whether Minnesota's situation will deteriorate in as spectacular a fashion as Massachusetts' foray into open standards. It seems that the two states looked backward and borrowed from Karl Marx. Perhaps Massachusetts and Minnesota want to "own" the means of production of state documents -- not literally own the software that creates the documents, but own the format in which those documents get created.

State and local governments create documents that belong to the public record. It's the public's business. Shouldn't the public record transcend proprietary formats?
Shane Peterson Associate Editor