Open Formats Enter the Presidential Debate

Those of us who live in America are currently in the midst of that most protracted, expensive and (often) tedious of all democratic processes: the quadrennial quest to find, and perhaps even elect, the most able leader to guide the nation into the future.  Part and parcel to that spectacle is a seemingly endless torrent of printed words and video.  These emanate from more than a dozen candidates, each of whom is trying to convince the electorate that he or she is The One, while at the same time hoping to avoid offering any point of vulnerability that can be exploited by the opposition.

It is an overwhelming and leveling experience for all concerned, electorate and candidates alike.

Out of the campaign cacophony of the last week emerged a handful of words from Senator and Democratic party hopeful Barack Obama that could not fail to catch my attention.  He used them during the presidential debate held in Las Vegas, and they also appear in the "Innovation Agenda" that Obama had released a few days before.  He announced this agenda in a speech he delivered on November 14 at an aptly selected venue:  the Google campus in Mountainview, California.  One of the pledges he made in the course of that speech reads in part as follows:

To seize this moment, we have to use technology to open up our democracy. It's no coincidence that one of the most secretive Administrations in history has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to sunlight. As President, I'll change that. I'll put government data online in universally accessible formats.  [emphasis added]

A presidential candidate that is including "universally accessible formats" in his platform?  How did that come about?

The fact of the matter is that I have no idea, but apparently he (or his handlers) believe that open formats are important enough not only to be used in the debate and the full nine-page policy statement available at the Obama Web site, but in the much briefer press release as well.

Another intriguing question is what exactly he means by "universally accessible formats."  Does that phrase indicate formats that implement vendor neutral open standards, or formats that are accessible to those with disabilities, or both?  And if it means the former, what criteria would qualify a format as being "universally accessible?"  Adoption by a consortium?  Adoption by ISO/IEC JTC1?  Widespread market adoption?  All of the above?

And on a related note, did Obama’s advisors independently come to the conclusion that open formats are important, and incorporate them as part of a prudent and comprehensive effort to frame out an open and interoperable government IT framework, or did the suggestion come from outside – perhaps from one vendor or another?  If the impetus was not external, then kudos to the sophistication of Obama’s staff, and to Obama’s bravery as well, if he is aware of the history of open formats in governmental debate to date.  But if the suggestion came from outside and was included without full awareness of recent history, well, one can’t help but wonder exactly what "universally accessible" is really meant to mean.

The full policy makes for an interesting read, and contains much else of interest, such as a commitment to network neutrality, support for what appears to be an expansion of the peer to patent process now in beta test, and much more (a good summary can be found here).  It will be doubly interesting if other candidates issue their own policies, as this would provide an opportunity to see how different political camps envision the role of IT in government.

If so, will any other candidate mention open formats as well?  There is, of course, at least one other contender with as much or more experience with the contentious topic of open formats in a political setting:  Mitt Romney – the Massachusetts governor whose Secretary of Administration and Finance and CIO launched the entire debate two years ago.

Overall, one can only applaud Obama for beginning a dialogue on the role of IT in government.  As the provision of government services becomes increasingly a digitized process, the importance of IT increases as both an enabler of new interaction between government and citizenry, but as something to be very carefully conceived, in order to ensure security, preservation and uninterrupted services.

As usual, I have included the full press release below, for archival purposes.


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Obama Unveils Innovation Agenda at Google

Mountain View, CA | November 14, 2007

Mountain View, CA — At a town hall meeting today at Google headquarters, U.S. Senator Barack Obama will unveil an innovation agenda that will connect and empower Americans through technology. The comprehensive plan will ensure the full and free exchange of information by protecting the openness of the internet and encouraging diversity in media ownership, create a transparent and connected democracy by opening up government to its citizens, modernize our communications infrastructure, employ technology and information to take on the challenges facing America, and improve our nation’s competitiveness.

Excerpts from Obama’s prepared remarks are below:

"Together, we could open up government and invite citizens in, while connecting all of America to 21st century broadband. We could use technology to help achieve universal health care, to reach for a clean energy future, and to ensure that young Americans can compete – and win – in the global economy. If America recommits itself to science and innovation, we can lead the world to a new future of productivity and prosperity. That’s what we can do if we seize this moment."

– – – – –

"I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality. Because once providers start to privilege some applications or web sites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out, and we all lose. The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history. We have to keep it that way."

– – – – –

"To seize this moment, we have to use technology to open up our democracy. It’s no coincidence that one of the most secretive Administrations in history has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to sunlight. As President, I’ll change that. I’ll put government data online in universally accessible formats. I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts. I’ll let you participate in government forums, ask questions in real time, offer suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are made, and let you comment on legislation before it is signed. And to ensure that every government agency is meeting 21st century standards, I’ll appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer."

– – – – –

"We need to make sure that the next success story – the next Google – happens here in America. The Google story is about what can be achieved when we cultivate new ideas and keep the playing field level for new businesses. But it’s also about not settling for what we’ve achieved. It’s about constantly raising the bar so that we’re more competitive, and so we use technology to reach ever-expanding horizons…The promise and prosperity of our new economy must not become the property of the few, it must be a force that lifts up our entire country, and that lifts up the world."

Obama’s innovation agenda would:

I.Ensure the Full and Free Exchange of Information through an Open Internet and Diverse Media Outlets

  • Protect the Openness of the Internet
  • Encourage Diversity in Media Ownership
  • Protect Our Children While Preserving the First Amendment
  • Safeguard Our Right to Privacy 

II. Create a Transparent and Connected Democracy

  • Open Up Government to its Citizens
  • Bring Government into the 21st Century

III. Deploy a Modern Communications Infrastructure

  • Deploy Next-Generation Broadband

IV. Employ Technology and Innovation to Solve Our Nation’s Most Pressing Problems

  • Lower Health Care Costs by Investing in Electronic Information Systems
  • Invest in Climate-Friendly Energy Development and Deployment
  • Upgrade Education to Meet the Needs of the 21st Century
  • Create New Jobs
  • Modernize Public Safety Networks

V. Improve America’s Competitiveness

  • Invest in the Sciences
  • Make the R & D Tax Cut Permanent
  • Reform Immigration
  • Promote American Businesses Abroad
  • Ensure Competitive Markets
  • Protect American Intellectual Property Abroad
  • Protect Intellectual American Property at Home
  • Reform the Patent System

    A link to the full innovation agenda is available here.

Comments (3)

  1. "Promoting American businesses abroad" will sort-of help, because I work for one of them in its UK operations. Developing software for supercomputers.

    However, what about "Promoting UK businesses in the USA" ?

    Business is global, now. Maybe Obama needs a slightly-more-sophisticated strategy. But the debate makes interesting reading.

    Protectionism is right-out-the-window. I hope.

  2. Re: I’ll put government data online in universally accessible formats.

    He does not say "lots of government data" or "always in universally accessible formats".
    This sounds good but could mean very little. It needs firming up – giafly.

  3. Even though these are platitudes, I agree that it’s interesting that the Obama campaign even thought to make such platitudes.

    Yet another reason to like Obama…

Comments are closed.