Relay #70, Panel F

don't just know technology, understand it

Monday, June 11, 2007

Open Government

You don't have to think too hard to find a reason to use Open Source. Whether it's stability, security, cost, or cool points, you can almost always find justification. I'm not saying that having a reason means you have to do it, I'm just saying you can easily make a case. In the same breath, whether you agree with them or not, persons can find as many if not more reasons not to go the Open Source route. If you'd like a refresher on a few of them, just read any Microsoft sponsored study or whitepaper.

I'm not trying to rehash that particular debate today, instead I want to take a look at the "informationalized" embodiment of Open Source: Open Standards.

There's a reason we share the same first name

Open Source and Open Standards go hand in hand simply because they are two sides of the same basic idea. People should be allowed to use, modify and share code/information without being restricted by licenses which aim to bring about a profit instead of enriching the persons that use it. They seek to empower users with tools that are a means to an end, not to confuse persons into thinking the tool is an end in itself. In essence, ridding IT of self importance and putting the focus on the work that needs to get done.

Open Standards seek to rid persons of a reliance on a single application or solution. It allows you to move your data from vendor to vendor and have it retain its usability in each case.

With such noble intentions one would think that the buy-in for this initiative would be immeasurable, however it has been victim to pretty much the same issues as Open Source adoption. Again, for a refresher read any Microsoft sponsored study or whitepaper.

Whereas reasons-for can be placed alongside reasons-against for analysis, and either direction chosen if you're scrutinizing Open Source and Open Standards for personal or business reasons, there is one case and one institution in which its use should never be ignored.

Public S-E-R-V-A-N-T

The government is selected by the people, to serve the people. Everything they use belongs to the citizens. They are nothing more than custodians; put in charge of running certain affairs because you're too busy to do it yourselves. One of the most important things that they handle on your behalf is Information. All facets, types and categories of information. In fact, one could say that's all they handle. An economist could express dollars in terms on information; an engineer could express a road as information; the list goes on. Regardless of what type of information they posses however, storing that information is an inevitable task. That's how information is archived, referenced, and shared. Which brings us to the point of interest: Sharing.

Recall my earlier rant; the government holds, it does not own; and it's no different with the information that they posses. It is wholly owned by the citizens of the country and as with anything that you own, you can request it if and when you please (before you say it, yes I know, but let's not get overly technical and lose the lesson).

Your government has a responsibility to provide YOUR information in a manner that you can exploit. It should be open so that you can choose the terms under which you interact with it. It should never be locked down in a format that forces you to subscribe to someone else's method of using that information. It should be open; free of all constraints, proprietary encryption and
third party plug-ins. It's yours, not theirs. If your information is presented to you in any other way, your government has forgotten that _they_ are the servants.

The use of Open Standards in government should have no alternative and should never be open to debate. Whereas the issue of disenfranchising a company will often arise when discussing standardizing on Open Source, the issue is moot when applied to Open Standards as any vendor, open or otherwise, is free to incorporate open formats in their products. Notwithstanding any arguable technical issues, there is not one plausible reason for a government to lock itself, and by extension the citizens that they serve, into the use of one product and vendor because of the use of a proprietary, non-standard format.

The course of action is clear. It's hoped that the powers that be will open their eyes and have a greater understanding of the ideology, not just the practicality, of Open Standards and move to provide their citizens with true, uninhibited access to the information they own.

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