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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Vancouver considers adopting free software and open standards in government

I always assumed it would be a cold day in hell when Vancouver city council came up with a good idea. They are usually too busy trying to make a bad road system even worse or harassing small business owners like Marc Emery. I was, therefore, quite surprised to hear that council will be debating a motion on open standards and open source software on a day that is forecast to be sunny and 19 degrees.

The motion would see the city developing and procuring free and open source software (FOSS), making more information accessible to the public, and publishing the information using open standards.

FOSS is a method of developing computer software, whereby an application’s source code is made freely available and software is developed collaboratively by programmers from around the world. Popular applications developed using this method include the Firefox web browser and the Linux operating system.

Using FOSS in government has the potential to save significant amounts of taxpayer money since governments would be able to avoid costly licensing fees. They would also have a greater degree of flexibility in customizing the software and could distribute the costs of development across numerous municipalities and other levels of government that have similar needs, while at the same time harnessing the well established free software community to help with development (see my post on using FOSS in public institutions here).

There is also a strong relationship between using free software and open document standards and having a more transparent government. Providing public information using open standards will mean that more people will have access to that information. It will also mean that people will not be forced into buying expensive pieces of software, like Microsoft Office, in order to view information that should be available to everyone. Perhaps more importantly, it will mean that future generations will have access to the information as well.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, try pulling one of those old disks from the late '80s/early '90s out of the closet and try to access the information. Chances are that you either won't have a drive that can read the disk, and if you do, it's likely that current versions of the software won't be able to read the information that's on the disk. This is because many proprietary software vendors try to lock in their customers by writing information in ways that competing software packages will have a hard time reading. If document standards are freely available, it would be easy enough for someone—20 years down the line—to create a new piece of software that can read the information.

In terms of office documents, there has been a big push recently for the adoption of the Open Document Format (ODF), which is currently supported by a number of office suites, including OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, Google Docs, KOffice, and Lotus Symphony. There are also a number of plugins that add ODF support to Microsoft Office and Microsoft recently added partial support for the format in an update to Office 2007. According to the ODF Alliance, however, there are "serious deficiencies" in Microsoft's support for the standard. This would appear to be yet another attempt by the monopolist software company to lock people into using their proprietary office suite. One more reason why governments need to be proactive in procuring free software technologies that can properly read and write open formats.

For a good explanation on the relationship between free software and free knowledge, take a look at this interview with Calgary-based FOSS developer Aaron Seigo:

Posted by Jesse Kline on May 20, 2009 in Municipal Politics | Permalink


"or harassing small business owners like Marc Emery."

Jesse, you just revealed your true colours as a Llibertarian neanderthal.

Posted by: epsilon | 2009-05-21 10:09:30 AM

Actually, Jesse, reading archival documents with modern software versions is seldom a problem. One reason the later versions of any software product become so bloated is because they remain backward-compatible with previous versions. Software is available that allows many older discs to be read on current hardware, even from a different computer platform. I have seldom ever had a problem opening a very old file, and as a graphic designer on three platforms (PC, Mac, Amiga) I have seen it all.

Open-source software would also do nothing to address the other scenario you suggest, obsolete media for which readers (such as 5.25-inch floppy-disc drives) are no longer widely available. Responsible record keepers shall in any case have long since transferred legacy files to current media.

This not to say open document formats and platforms are a bad idea; far from it. Look what the widespread adoption of the Adobe PDF standard has done for document distribution. I remember when Adobe Acrobat 1.0 came out nearly fifteen years ago. It was a hideously broken and unusable piece of crap that choked on anything more complex than a few lines of text, and look it at now. And Firefox is a much better browser than Internet Explorer, in spite of Microsoft's marketing clout.

Overall, I applaud them for taking this step. Let's hope the effort bears fruit.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-21 10:52:20 AM

"or harassing small business owners like Marc Emery."

You just couldn't resist adding that, could you? You are a one-note man; you play it all you can.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-21 10:53:30 AM

I'm a woman. And yes, I play it all the time. Got a problem with it?

Posted by: epsilon | 2009-05-21 12:19:47 PM

Epsilon, I was addressing Jesse, not you, even as you were addressing Jesse.

But let's say I *was* addressing you, and *did* have a problem with it. What then?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-21 12:37:50 PM


Posted by: epsilon | 2009-05-21 2:50:39 PM

Epsilon, congratulations on outing me as a libertarian cave man. I'm thinking of offering an award for those who contribute the most to the discussion and i'm thinking of nominating you.

Posted by: Jesse Kline | 2009-05-21 4:29:12 PM

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