Document Freedom Day in Sydney 26 March 2008

Document freedom — what’s that? It’s all about being able to read something you wrote a few years ago, and being able to read something that someone else has written — whether now or hundreds of years ago. Or even just knowing that you’ll be able to read what someone writes tomorrow. It’s all about freedom from the bounds that may be imposed by a proprietary document format.

On Wednesday this week, a group of us got together at the Google offices in Sydney to swap stories and ideas and to kick off the Sydney team for the Document Freedom Day initiative. The immediate aim is to raise awareness of the problems and to promote the idea of open standards for document formats.

We carefully, almost, didn’t mention Microsoft’s Open Office XML (OOXML) document format and its bid to get it declared an ISO standard.

The problem

If your writing is encased in a proprietary format, then to a certain extent you are at the mercy of the owners of that format. If they abandon backwards compatibility, the world will move on without really taking note of that event. A few years later, no-one will be able to read your work. Even worse, you may be unable to find some essential information that you know is out there, but is hidden from you because you’re using a different technology.

The meeting

The Sydney meeting was one of 200 similar events happening in 60 countries on the same day.

We started with a short introduction from each of the three sponsors:

  • Alan Noble, chief of engineering at Google Australia, was a debonair and skilled MC. His introduction was accompanied by a fair bit of wry humour, mentioning ‘notorious formatting incompatibilities, without naming specific software suites or operating systems’. He raised the simple question: Who owns the data? And he issued
    • a challenge to software engineers to come up with a format that will be readable for the next 1000 years.
  • Holly Raiche from Internet Society of Australia pointed out that part of the need is to educate and assist people who are concerned about interoperability. Many people are worried, but feel that they don’t know enough and are worried about seeming foolish.
  • Sridhar Dhanapalan from the Sydney Linux Users Group said that open formats tie in with open source. He looked at the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book — low tech, but we can still read them centuries later — and compared them to the BBC Domesday Project, putting the book onto laser disks which were unreadable 16 years later.

The two main speakers of the evening were Kate Lundy and David Vaile. Both so different, and both so interesting.

Kate Lundy — Wow, what a dynamo! She is Senator for the Australian Capital Territory, and has a strong interest in information technology, the National Archives, open technology and the laws governing freedom of information. Her talk was short and pithy. One of the main points I got out of it is this (my synopsis, not a direct quote):

With the recent change in the Australian Federal Government comes a unique opportunity for creative change. We should seize this opportunity to promote a drive towards open standards — particularly within the government services themselves. The National Archives, for example, have a range of rules governing standards for document formats, such as metadata.

Kate drew a parallel between the government’s ‘New Federalism’ (breaking down boundaries and sharing responsibilities) and the drive for open standards. I’m not so sure I get the comparison, but it was great to hear her enthusiasm, commitment and ideas.

David Vaile — The enthusiastic self-professed devil’s advocate. He was determined not to mention the war, and mostly succeeded. David is executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales. His talk covered a wide range of information. He divided the topic into three areas:

  • Open content (public domain; creative commons and free for education licences; Google’s friendly acquisition and acquiescence; crown copyright etc; and hybrids of the above)
  • Open source and free/libre software
  • Open standards and formats

There are some disquieting ins and outs to all this. Here are just some of the things David raised, in his role as devil’s advocate. Should we consider standards as ‘legislation lite’? Look at the wars going on within big companies. Even the Microsoft-versus-the-world standards wars are not black and white. Yes, we did mention the war after all😉 Look at the process of defining the standards — does it work? Does the buzzword ‘open’ mask other interests? What does ‘free’ actually mean — does it include the rider ‘but within the boundaries laid down by me’? Are we in danger of moving towards extremism?

David urged us always to take a step back (actually, it was more like being gently shoved back) and be sceptical. He challenged us to think in terms of 500 years — especially for archives and such.

After the speeches, we held a short question time. I thought these two were the most interesting:

  • How can we participate in the Document Freedom initiative, moving on from this meeting? Kate Lundy answered that the online facilities were being set up.
  • How does cloud computing affect the openness of documents? There was quite a discussion around this point. Does the cloud get around the problem of obsolescence? Who owns the data? Bandwidth is costly, especially in some areas of the world. Governments, including the Australian government, have a risk aversion to technology — but this may not be a bad thing. We should look at a dual model, i.e. cloud plus local presences. The concepts of ‘control of data’ and ‘location of data’ should be separated because they actually have nothing to do with each other. (You may think you control your data if it’s on your own hard disk. But what happens when your disk crashes, or becomes obsolete?)

My conclusions

This was really interesting. I’m staying tuned.

One thing I’d like to get deeper into, is the open formats themselves. At the meeting, we concentrated a fair bit on the content of documents (ownership and security) rather than the actual format. We did mention ODF and HTML. What about XML formats like DITA and DocBook? Are they mature enough for mainstream use? If not, what can we do to promote them? And why do WYSIWYG editing tools always seem to lag behind? Why is transformation between formats so difficult (e.g. XSLT) — is this stuff just for geeks😉

Update on 1 April: Check out this excellent comparison of DocBook and DITA by Teresa Mulvihill.

After the formal meeting, most people went on to dinner and informal networking. I had been awake since 01:30 that morning (yes, that’s just after midnight — and don’t ask why, because it’s nothing exciting) so I left. I guess I probably missed out on some really cool stuff. If anyone who was there reads this blog, please let me know what happened.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 29 March 2008, in open standards, technical writing, xml and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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