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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

The good and the bad of PDFs

Following up on Can Proprietary Formats make Government More Open? :

Josh Tauberer of govtrack.us, points us to The good and the bad of PDFs (OpenGovData.org wiki) in which Kevin Lyons, who works for the Nebraska legislature, wrote up some guidelines for PDF in government.

Lyons reminds us that not all PDF files are equal and he enumerates some of the advantages and disadvantages of encapsulating government information in PDFs.

Given how popular the PDF standard itself is, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the term PDF actually covers a wide variety of different types of files. While all PDF files fit the PDF standard, there are several different subtypes of PDF that are helpful in the government world.

FEC makes data available in multiple formts

Disclosure Data Catalog, Federal Election Commission

“Each of the files listed here can be downloaded in either csv or xml formats. Each also has a metadata page that describes the information included and the structure of the file itself. There is a pdf version of each file if you need to print the information. You can also subscribe to RSS feeds for each of the files so you’re notified whenever new data is available or a change is made.”

Also see the Commission’s Disclosure Data Blog where the FEC will post information about the files and its future plans. And: they say that “you can get help with any questions about the data we’re providing here.”

Can Proprietary Formats make Government More Open?

Three interesting comments!

  • Adobe is Bad for Open Government, by Clay Johnson, Sunlight Labs
  • Adobe is Bad for Open Government, comment, by kathy and ernie brandon, Open House Project mailing list, (10/28/2009).

    “Once private ownership is established in something like this we aren’t getting it out again, not without another draining fight. Most people start out saying “I don’t really have a problem with this” until I take them down the road this leads – private ownership means ‘trade secrets’, ‘trade secrets’ is the opposite of transparency.”

  • Adobe is Bad for Open Government, comment, by Josh Tauberer, Open House Project mailing list, (10/28/2009).

    “Government has a responsibility to issue print-ready documents in many cases, so PDFs are an important part of an open government. I would rather have PDFs over nothing electronic, over electronic image files, and over other formats suitable for printing — PDF is an open standard (albeit proprietary).

    “I wouldn’t want to get rid of PDFs. Docs need to either be published in a second format, or — more interesting — we could get Adobe to revise the PDF format so that it can encode the document in structured form as well. That means govt publishes a single file that makes everyone happy.”

W3C Draft: Publishing Open Government Data

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has posted a first draft of their eGovernment Working Group’s guidelines for governments putting data on the Web, Publishing Open Government Data. (And hey! It’s not in PDF format.)

The W3C posted this notice on their website on September 9:

Today, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announces a draft work plan for the eGovernment Interest Group, whose mission is to document, advocate, coordinate and communicate best practices, solutions and approaches to improve the interface between citizens and government through effective use of Web standards. The draft charter, in review by the W3C community until the end of September, focuses on two topics: Open Government Data (OGD), and Education and Outreach. In line with its anticipated focus on Open Government Data, the group also announces today a first draft of Publishing Open Government Data, which provides step-by-step guidelines for putting government data on the Web. Sharing data according to these guidelines enables greater transparency; delivers more efficient public services; and encourages greater public and commercial use and re-use of government information. Learn more about the W3C eGovernment Activity.

[hat tip DB/eCitizen]

Need for Open Standards Video on the Web

An article in Technology Review reports on the current state of video on the web, its drawbacks and limitations, and what the future may bring.

  • OurTube, By David Talbot, Technology Review (September/October 2009). (3400 words)

The article summarizes the story of Michael Dale and Abram Stern who wanted to use speeches in the U.S. Congress and discovered that they could not get the videos. “There was no online repository for download.” Their efforts led to the development of http://metavid.org/ which offered legislative videos for free download, a copyright battle with C-SPAN, and a change in C-SPAN policy to make some of its videos freely available for some uses. (See also Who Owns What C-Span Airs?, and C-SPAN provides more access, but wants to retain control, etc..)

Dale and Stern’s difficulties offer one small glimpse into a larger problem with online video: unlike much of the rest of the Web, it is accessed through a collection of closed, proprietary formats, such as Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight. (Try a video search engine such as Blinkx; you’ll get plenty of videos pulled from around the Web, but to watch them you may need to download or update software.) Certain websites, led by YouTube, convert uploaded content to Flash for ease of viewing. Today, however, a growing number of technologists and video artists want to see Web video adopt the kind of open standards that fueled the growth of the Web at large. HTML, the markup language that describes Web pages; JavaScript, the programming language that allows forms, graphics, and various special effects to be added to them; JPEG, the standard for images–all these building blocks of the Web can be used by anyone, without paying fees or asking permission. This openness was indispensable to the creation and then the explosion of blogs, search engines, social networks, and more.

Talbot quotes Chris Blizzard, director of technical evangelism at Mozilla, as he explains why open standards are so important:

Open standards create low friction. Low friction creates innovation. Innovation makes people want to pick it up and use it. But it’s not something where we can guess what ‘it’ is. We just create the environment that lets ‘it’ emerge.

Too much government information (not just video) suffers from being locked in to proprietary formats and proprietary means of delivering that information. (See: What is wrong with this picture? and lots more at the open formats tag here at FGI.)

Blizzard says that we need to take “video out of the plug-in prison.” Talbot says, “The goal isn’t to make any one application possible but to bring about the next Internet revolution–one whose specific form is hard to foresee, except that it’s likely to be televised.”