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IDA promotes the use of open document formats for e-government interoperability

Open Document Formats
   

 

At its meeting of 25 May 2004, the TAC (Telematics between Administrations Committee), composed of e-government policy-makers from the 25 EU Member States, endorsed a set of recommendations for promoting the use of open document formats in the public sector.


The use of open standards and formats is a key requirement to make computer systems and programs interoperable, at national as well as at European level. For governments, this use represents a major success factor of their e-transformation initiatives, and a key requirement to improve their interactions with citizens and businesses.

In fact, communication between public administrations, as well as between them and citizens and businesses, is increasingly based on electronic documents. In most cases, though, these documents can only be opened and amended using the specific computer programs that served to create and write them, resulting in a proprietary document format. Some proprietary formats incorporate a minimum set of functionalities designed to ensure that the document can be read by different programs and over different systems, but in practice they almost all reflect and follow the functionalities provided by a specific writing or viewing software. As a result, document formats often remain incompatible between versions (e.g. different versions of MS Word) and platforms (e.g. Mac and PC). Even when conversion to another format is possible, it frequently results in information loss and format degradation.

This situation can make it difficult to exchange documents, which, in an increasingly networked and collaborative working environment, represents a major barrier to seamless information flow and joined-up service provision and delivery. The standardisation of document formats is therefore needed, so that documents can be exchanged and modified regardless of the computer platform and software used.

Where electronic, revisable documents are required, format standards should be based on XML (eXtensible Markup Language), a meta-language that makes it possible to separate content, structure, semantics and presentation of documents. Providing the mechanism to separate data from processing content, XML has now become the lingua franca for data exchange between information systems.

 

XML

 

However, adopting XML-based standards is not enough. While properly developed XML should in theory be platform-neutral, experience has indeed shown that vendors who wish to maintain and protect their platform’s market often encode elements that are capable of being processed only by their own application suites. This trend could result in the creation of “proprietary” XML document formats, which would not necessarily be compatible and would make document exchange even more complex. To ensure real interoperability, standards adopted should not only be XML-based but also ‘open’, meaning that their specifications and components (textual content, markup information, multi-media components, document metadata, and data related to the configuration of the originating application) are published and made freely available.

A number of open document formats (ODF) currently exist or are emerging. IDA has recently commissioned a study to assess their suitability for office documents exchanges between EU Member States’ administrations and to evaluate current market trends. Based on criteria such as openness, rewrite-ability, format fidelity, interoperability, adoption, etc., two formats were selected for in-depth analysis: Microsoft XML reference schemas and OpenOffice.org (OOo). XML Reference Schemas for Microsoft office suite were published in November 2003, and licence to use them is granted freely. In addition, Word 2003 has a native XML file format called WordML that allows separating the pure XML data from formatting as required. OpenOffice.org, which is both an office applications suite and an XML format, is a community-based open source project initiated in 2000 by Sun Microsystems and which is currently being standardised by the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

The findings of the study, which were discussed with both Sun Microsystems and Microsoft, served as a basis to elaborate a set of recommendations designed to promote the use of open document formats in Europe’s public administrations. Prepared by a group of experts from EU Member States, the recommendations suggest that the public sector review its use of 'revisable documents', and prefer non-revisable formats to ensure better access to public-sector information when possible. When revisable documents are required, the public sector should make use of open, XML-based document formats. Acknowledging that the publication of the OOo formats and Microsoft XML reference schemas has greatly improved the potential for interoperability of document processing, the recommendations do not favour any specific format over the other but on the contrary encourage the public sector to provide its information through several formats whenever possible. Where by choice or circumstance only a single revisable document format can be used, this should be for a format around which there is industry consensus, as demonstrated by the format’s adoption as a standard.

The recommendations therefore place particular importance on increasing standardisation efforts to ensure market access to all industry actors. They state that "standardisation initiatives will ensure not only a fair and competitive market but will also help safeguard the interoperability of implementing solutions whilst preserving competition and innovation". In this respect, the adoption of an OASIS Open Office Standard should be welcomed, and industry actors not currently involved with the OASIS Open Document Format should consider participating in the standardisation process in order to encourage a wider consensus around the format. The submission of the emerging OASIS Open Document Format to an official standardisation organisation such as ISO should also be considered.

The recommendations also encourage Microsoft to consider submitting its XML formats to an international standards body of its choice, issuing a public commitment to publish and provide non-discriminatory access to future versions of its XML specifications, and assessing the possibility of excluding non-XML formatted components from WordML documents.

Overall, the ICT industry as a whole is encouraged to provide filters to allow documents based on the WordML specifications and the emerging OASIS Open Document Format to be read and written to other applications whilst maintaining a maximum degree of faithfulness to content, structure and presentation. Industry is also encouraged to provide the appropriate tools and services to allow the public sector to consider feasibility and costs of a transformation of its documents to XML-based formats. By doing so, administrations will contribute to a wider take-up of applications that support these formats, therefore paving the way to enhanced and easier interactions with citizens and enterprises.

The IDA study and recommendations are available on this website.


Article published in the IDA Report 22 - June 2004