Last week I had a weird experience. I went to the Department of Communications and Social Research of the Faculty of Communication Sciences of La Sapienza, the first and biggest University in Rome. The reason I went there was to attend the presentation of the Italian Manifesto for Open Government, on which I’ll report soon in another article. The promoters of the Manifesto spent the whole morning explaining in detail all its ten articles, including the fourth and fifth that strongly assert the importance of opening public data, that is publishing them without restrictions in open file formats. They explained this in a room whose entrance was right in front of a billboard on which the Faculty staff had pinned this notice (thanks to Flavia for taking the [picture):
To all the students who will present their final graduation thesis at the next graduation session: please note that the personal computer that you will have to use in case you have a multimedia presentation has the following technical specifications:
Software: Windows XP - service pack 2
Office Professional 2003
Windows media player 9.0
That was a really weird note to read, considering both the Faculty that had issued it and the reason why I was right there that day. First, because I think that even a thesis prepared in a public University is public data, that is something that must be saved, usable and presentable by using exclusively Open File Formats (and Microsoft Office formats aren’t considered open by the Italian State).
In the second place, I believe that schools, at least public schools, should only use Free Software. Finally, that note is weird because a note like that wouldn’t make sense even if it only listed Free Software! In order to demonstrate it, let’s try to imagine what that note would have had to say, in order to make just as much sense, in the pre-computer era:
To all the students who will present their final graduation thesis at the next graduation session: please note that the overhead projector and the committee that you will have to use, in case you have a multimedia presentation, have the following technical specifications:
the overhead projector will project without errors **only and exclusively** slides drawn with your left hand, in a full moon night, using a Tanganika pheasant quill and ink distilled by curlew blood
all the professors members of the graduation committee use patented triple-bihelicoidal-polarization glasses that let them see **only** certain colors. It is up to the student to guess which colors.
Can you see how absurd that note is now? Before computers it was totally irrelevant what was the brand and model of the overhead projectors, slides and markers one had to use or the brand and model of the professors glasses: the brand and model, that is of what were the forerunners of software, that is the tools used before computers to read and write. But why was their brand and model irrelevant? Simply because the only “technical” requirements to prepare a presentation where that the slides were written using the standard alphabet. But the standard alphabet is nothing but a completely open document format; a format without secrets, that everybody could use for any reason without conditions; a format, above all, that is stable, always equal and always completely independent from the brand of the tools used to write or read it. Today, in this digital age, we must go back to that level of technological perfection. Because it is wrong to force students to prepare documents in formats that are compatible only certain types of hardware and software, and because secret or undocumented file formats give no guarantee to remain readable in the long term. Consequently, the only right way to write a note like that should be something similar to this:
To all the students who will present their final graduation thesis at the next graduation session: please note that the only file formats that will be acceptable in case you have a multimedia presentation are: OpenDocument for texts, presentations and spreadsheets, Ogg Vorbis for audio, Theora for video, LibreDwg for CAD files... basically, you can **only use really open file formats**, and how you generate those files is **none** of our business!
Of course, I am not thinking that a whole Faculty or should be closed or yelled at just for one note, and as far as I know the Faculty may be have already moved to exclusive usage of open file formats years ago, but nobody bothered to remove the note. But since these are times when:
- there are other public Universities in Italy that create useless digital barriers
- Italian politicians from both left and right parties sign deals that promote or tolerate adoption of addictive file formats in public schools
- even an intellectual like Umberto Eco doesn’t get file formats
- even organizations like the World Wildlife Fund feel the need to embarass itself with file formats
maybe it doesn’t hurt, when one sees a note like that, to remember exactly why, how and how much it is wrong.