Massachusetts leaders had a seemingly simple idea: Government documents produced by word processing, spreadsheet, database or presentation software belong to the public record, and therefore, should be created and stored in open formats that aren't tied to a particular program.

Massachusetts reasoned that storing electronic documents in proprietary formats might create situations where documents were held hostage by those formats. Important public documents could be rendered all but inaccessible when the applications that created them went out of style.

The Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) explained the desire to move to an open data format on the frequently asked questions page of its Web site:

"Ease of access to electronic records created in proprietary formats is limited in time. Once the proprietary vendor abandons a particular version of an application or format, documents created and formatted in those applications and formats may become inaccessible to all readers. The proprietary formats supported by our current office applications may place a permanent lock on future access."

This is where Massachusetts' simple idea got complicated.

To create government documents using open data formats, the agencies making those documents must use nonproprietary software tools. That means a massive shift away from the dominant desktop software suite -- Microsoft Office.

The threat of that change set off a pitched battle that led to the resignation of state CIO Peter Quinn. And with the dust still not settled in Massachusetts, another state -- Minnesota -- is exploring a move to open document standards.

Microsoft -- intent on protecting its market position -- announced in late 2005 that it would submit its Office Open extensible markup language (XML) format to a European standards body for review, a key step toward getting Open XML certified as an open standard.

To further muddy the waters, experts warn that the lack of a clear definition for open standards complicates states' move toward electronic document formats that will be widely accessible over the long term.

Preserving Documents

Government IT leaders face a document dilemma -- especially with so much government information being created, shared and stored electronically.

From a government's perspective, the format of an electronic document is a significant issue. Proprietary formats are quite needy -- they refuse to work with any other program besides the one that created them; they require a current, running copy of that program; and they need that program to be installed on a computer and operating system that can run the program.

This creates challenges for state and local governments that must respond to information requests from a wide spectrum of constituents who want to review public documents associated with a range of government projects or services programs.

Massachusetts officials contend that government documents should be created in a format readable by various applications, noting that some constituents can't afford a computer with an up-to-date version of the Windows operating system and Office suite.

Another problem with proprietary formats is that an electronic document created by agency X may not be compatible with agency Y's computer system, a situation that hinders information sharing among agencies and levels of government.

Massachusetts' 2005 proposal for dealing with these two problems whipped up quite a disturbance indeed. But creating documents based on open data formats isn't just about the documents themselves.

In early 2005, the Massachusetts ITD announced it would begin work on an Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM) for the state. The rationale for creating the ETRM was straightforward: to provide an "architectural framework used to identify the standards, specifications and technologies that support the commonwealth's computing environment," according to the ITD's Web site.

But the ITD's commitment to several "open initiatives" as overarching themes of the ETRM sparked a political skirmish

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor