While many nations, agencies, cities, U.S. States and other governmental units have considered mandating the use of Open Document Format since Massachusetts announced its intention to do so in August of 2005, comparatively few have actually done so. Now, one of the early and consistent supporters of ODF has taken the plunge, and done so. That nation is the Republic of South Africa.
On Monday of this week, the South African Government released a slightly revised version (4.1) of its Minimum Interoperability Standards (MIOS) for Information Systems in Government, with the most significant amendment being the addition of the ODF requirement. Aslam Raffee, the Chair of the Government IT Officers Council Open Source Software Working Group was kind enough to send me a copy, and you can find the complete text here. The foreword describes the goals of the program, and the way that open standards figure in them, as follows:
The main thrust of the framework (in line with international best practice), is the adoption of a structured approach with regard to information systems. To achieve this approach, and to ensure the enhancement of interoperability across Government, a minimum set of standards are included in this document as a required Government-wide standard. To this end, this updated version of MIOS contains an explicit definition of Open Standards as well as the inclusion of the ISO (International Standards Organisation) Open Document Format.
The applicability of the MIOS is broad, seeking to serve the needs of all “National, Provincial, Local Government Departments and their agencies, and the wider public sector, i.e., organs of state and state-owned enterprises,” in interactions among governmental units, as well as between government and citizens, employees, and external entities. As a result of this focus, the standards mandated are limited to those intended to enable interoperability, and more specifically, “Systems Interconnectivity, Data Interoperability and Information Access” (MIOS Section 2.2).
The MIOS recognizes (rightly) that there are a number of definitions for “open standards,” and therefore includes its own definitions, stating “For the purpose of the MIOS, a standard shall be considered open if it meets all of these criteria” (emphasis in the original). That said, it goes on to acknowledge that “there are standards which we are obliged to adopt for pragmatic reasons which do not necessarily fully conform to being open in all respects.
This list that the MIOS adopts for determining whether or not a specification qualifies as an open standard is found in Section 2.3.1, and as follows:
It should be maintained by a non-commercial organization
Participation in the ongoing development work is based on decision-making processes that are open to all interested parties.
Open access: all may access committee documents, drafts and completed standards free of cost or for a negligible fee.
It must be possible for everyone to copy, distribute and use the standard free of cost.
The intellectual rights required to implement the standard (e.g., essential patent claims) are irrevocably available, without any royalties attached.
There are no reservations regarding reuse of the standard.
There are multiple implementations of the standard.
This definition is broad, as it touches (to varying degrees of stringency) or the nature of the adopting body, the ability of any interested party to both participate in both development as well as access to the finish standard at no or nominal cost, the ability to freely implement the standard without undue restrictions, and market proof of utility by more than a single vendor. And, while it does not mention open source software by name, the terms are clearly intended to facilitate open source implementation. The MIOS goes on to list the standards organizations that have produced the standards referenced in the MIOS, and the standards themselves. The requirement for use of ODF appears in Section 2.0.
Government interoperability frameworks (GIF) are becoming an increasingly important focus for national governments, as they wrestle with the need to efficiently share information as basic as (in the US) social security numbers and drivers license identification on a secure and pervasive basis. In fact, I first met Aslam Raffee in Beijing, at a United Nations sponsored GIF support meeting I was speaking at earlier this year. The CIOS or upper level IT managers of some 17 countries attended that multi-day event, which focused on the continuing evolution of these important tools.
It’s not surprising, for this reason, that South Africa and (I expect) many other governments will be creating such documents, in which document formats will be an important element. That South Africa would have adopted ODF and not OOXML is also not surprising. As I have previously reported, South Africa became an early member of the ODF Alliance was quite unhappy after the aggressive promotion of OOXML through the first (Conflicts) part of the ISO/IEC JTC 1 process and asked for a review of how that saga could be avoided in the future, and voted “no, with comments” during the next phase of the process, which closed on September 2 without approving OOXML. Its internal vote was in mid July.
It will be interesting to see what decisions other governments make in their own GIFs, whether they follow South Africa’s lead, and whether, and how, if at all, the experience of OOXML and the National Bodies in the ISO/IEC JTC1 process may affect their decisions.
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