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Open formats

Over at the Open House Project mailing list there has been a long discussion recently of how to make sure we have long-term, open, free, public access to Congressional and Presidential videos. (See also: Congress on YouTube and Should Obama ditch YouTube?) Today, Clay Shirky posted a clear and concise and persuasive summary of why we need open formats. (Re: Open video, Clay Shirky, Jan. 28, 2009.)

I was the head of the technical work on the Library of Congress’s digitial preservation network (NDIIPP) in the early part of the decade, and when we undertook a survey of threats to long-term preservation of digital material, we assumed, dumb bunnies that we were, that we were dealing with issues of storage, redundancy and migration costs.

It turned out, though, that the biggest threat to long-term preservation isn’t hardware or cost, it’s format; proprietary formats don’t just happen to hamper unexpected future uses, that’s what they are _designed_ to do. If you had an ASCII file and a WordStar file, both from 1987, and had to open and read each one as quickly as you could, what would the difference in elapsed seconds be?

There has been some back and forth on this list about possible threats to putting USG-created materials into the hands of commercial entities. I’m on record as worrying about that precisely because path dependence on commercial motivation can easily come a cropper, and I recently had an experience that seemed to highlight that risk.

Last Friday, I heard a talk at the Smithsonian from the awesome George Oates, who was instrumental in getting the Flickr Image Commons going. It was an inspiring talk, and when I went to introduce myself afterwards and we were talking about what might be next, she told me Yahoo had cut her job in the December round of layoffs.

Of course. Why shouldn’t Yahoo have done that — the Commons may have been good PR for them in 2008, but its hard to argue that the cost is going to be recouped in revenues somehow. When we are talking about public goods, we are talking about goods that don’t flourish in the commercial market *by definition.* We need to make that part of all the systemic thinking we do about open data; Ogg for video would be a great addition to the arsenal.

There have been some excellent discussions going on over at the Open House Project Google Group lately. If you don’t usually monitor that list, you might want to browse through the last couple of weeks posts.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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