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Making document formats open, it makes them better

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Open standards

Linda Humphries

Document Freedom Day takes place every year on the last Wednesday of March to celebrate open standards and access to information. In 2014, it coincided with the Open Standards Board meeting where we reached the decision to adopt Open Document Format (ODF) for editable documents in government.

A year has gone by and another Document Freedom Day has passed. I’ve been reflecting on what the open standards team has been working on over the past 12 months. Whilst we might still have a long way to go, I’m impressed by how far we’ve come.

Opening up documents

There’s a lot of activity happening across government. Departments have been preparing implementation plans for the move to open formats. Many of these are now published on GOV.UK.

You can see on GOV.UK that a number of departments have started to publish in open formats including: Transport, Communities and Local Government, Health, Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs. I expect that number to double by the end of this year.

Several departments are planning user research and setting up pilots for different software as part of their move to ODF as the default for creating documents. They’re considering which products work best for them. There are many that support open formats so open source software is being considered on a level playing field with proprietary software.

Making things better

I’ve been keeping you updated through the blog about events like the 10th ODF Plugfest that we hosted for the OpenDoc Society in December. It brought together around 50 experts from SMEs, larger companies and governments. The aim was to help suppliers to improve their products so that users have a better experience when they exchange documents.

We heard from several suppliers about their plans and the event sparked a lot of conversations about things that weren’t quite right. Obviously not everything could be fixed on the day so the conversations and the work continues.

Since December, there have been several notable announcements from suppliers:

  • Google has provided support for ODF presentations in addition to the existing support for text and spreadsheets.
  • This was done months ahead of schedule because of our policy. They’re continuing to work on better ODF support.
  • Microsoft has announced that it’s improving support, by enabling users to export files as ODF regardless of the format they were created in.
  • LibreOffice will be available online as a cloud service, with native support for ODF by the end of the year.

The Minister for Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, has described the impact that this has on users – giving them more choice about the software they use.

What’s been achieved over the last year has been done with the help of an enormous community of people. I’m already excited about the changes that our continuing work might bring by the time we reach Document Freedom Day 2016.

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  1. Comment by Jon Ayre (CTO Dept for Work and Pensions) posted on

    Well done Linda. Glad to have been a part of your journey. Thanks for bringing us all along for the ride.

  2. Comment by Andy posted on

    Actually this is costing the Government millions in lost productivity. So many documents, especially Excel spreadsheets that currently use macros are having to be changed. More importantly the macros no longer work meaning a loss in flexibility. Password protected documents no longer work so security is reduced and many of the advanced features are stripped out when saved as open documents. Use macros in open documents and they no longer work for the millions who have office, including the free versions on Android and IoS.
    On the face of it, open documents are a good idea, but in reality they actually result in people not being able to do things how they have in the past and millions of documents and thousands of man years of effort now having to be redone.
    There are also massive compatibility problems, not just with macros and protected files, but with embedded content and organisations/people with older versions of Office not being able to read new documents.
    Software should be selected to meet the business requirements, not to meet some arbitrary goal that seems a good idea at the time.

  3. Comment by Rob posted on

    Andy some people use macros, not everyone, actually relatively few do. Unfortunately using Excel macros means that others can't work with the spreadsheets unless they have the correct version of Microsoft Office running on a compatible version of Microsoft Windows etc, the cost of this to others is more.

    I agree with you, that there are massive compatibility problems with embedded content and organisations/people with older versions of Office not being able to read new documents. This standardisation on open documents will help enormously.

  4. Comment by Rob posted on

    Yes, well done Linda and others involved in UK Gov, this kind of change has to start at Government, it is the correct thing to do for so many reasons.

  5. Comment by Glen posted on

    If you are relying on Microsoft Office password protection for your security, then I'm not sure we can trust your other technical opinions. They can be cracked easily and quickly by anyone with a computer.

    Open Document formats are compatible with the products of multiple vendors, whereas you are recommending perpetual vendor lock-in, never being able to move from the services of one company who will have you over a barrel. The time to break away is when it is most feasible, which is always sooner rather than later - the vast majority of documents I have downloaded from the government sites do not have embedded macros. No one is being stopped from using macros for the production of documents, while the move to open formats exempts those documents where there is a critical case to prevent it.

    I am not keen on having to purchase (at the cost of hundreds of pounds) a specific operating system (and a new computer powerful enough to run it) capable of running the latest version of a specific office package to be able to read documents produced using my tax money, when free alternatives are available.

  6. Comment by RogerP posted on

    Moving to closed source and closed format data, will also pull the rug from under the feet of many wealth-generating UK companies. It flies in the face of "Open Government", and with information sharing at government-level with other countries. Password-protected documents are a naive approach to security as explained above and the contents might also become inaccessible to legitimate users. Strong encryption should be used (not perfect but nearly so) when storing and transmitting documents. But as this applies equally well to closed source, open source and ODF documents, there is no argument for sticking with Microsoft data formats.