Why Open Digital Standards Matter in Government

Preface: this is the complete essay I wrote for the Open Government Book.

Copyright? Unlike the rest of this website, this whole essay is available under a BY-NC-SA license, but please do read this note about copying before using it.

Index and first part

Each part of the essay is available in a separate page:

Let’s look at standards

Although we are rarely aware of the standards that are the foundation for our everyday activities, a host of such standards facilitate these activities and protect us from dangerous consequences. Let’s start our look at standards with three little questions:

  • How did standards enrich or limit President Barack Obama’s activities during his first day in office?
  • How could standards have saved the twin children of movie actor Dennis Quaid from serious injury?
  • Why is a lack of standards making it hard to repair the U.S. Navy’s much-heralded Nimitz nuclear aircraft carrier?

The answers will show why standards are relevant in many situations, and demonstrate the importance of the government using truly open standards in its digital media and processes.

Let’s start with Barack Obama. On his first day in office, he issued two memoranda, one about transparency and Open Government and another about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Despite the historic importance of these documents, almost nobody would be able to answer a simple question: what brand and model of pen did the president use to sign those memoranda?

Of course, almost nobody knows the answer to this question because nobody cares or needs to care (but just in case you were unbearably curious, here is the answer). This brings us to the two really important questions: what conditions make it irrelevant which pen the president uses? And crucially, what conditions could change the situation so that the tools he uses to write or sign a document suddenly matter? Before answering these questions, let’s look at what happened to actor Dennis Quaid’s children. In November 2007, his two-week-old twins nearly died after being given a drug at 1,000 times the recommended dose for newborns. Later, Quaid asked for “a technological way to track the life-and-death decision making in medicine” since “100,000 people are killed every year because of medical mistakes,” and created the Quaid Foundation to tackle the answer.

In another recent story, while being cured of cancer, former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin had a very similar problem: he had to fill out the same forms for six months—every time he went to a new hospital or test center—and also had an unnecessary operation because the surgeons didn’t know about earlier operations. As for the U.S.S. Nimitz, launched in 1972 and considered a hallmark of American military excellence, she’s still in pretty good shape. Which is lucky because some of the technical diagrams that explain how to fix the reactors and other critical systems are blurry when viewed on computer monitors. It turns out that the diagrams were stored in a file format that today’s computer programs do not completely understand. Reassuring, isn’t it?

Badly Used Technology Hinders Progress

These examples may seem totally unrelated, but they contain a common link. Every aspect of our existence is managed and mediated by data, documents, and communications that are increasingly digital: your civil rights and the quality of your own life heavily depend on how software is used around you. This data includes almost everything informational, from the critically important (databases, government reports, regulations, TV broadcasts, blueprints, maps, and contracts) to the casual (blog entries, home movies, and music).

Unfortunately, although the technology to handle these documents has made huge advances in the past 100 years, we often use software, or let it be used, in the wrong way. The software we use to manage government documents, the treatment plans of the Quaid children and Rep. Tauzin, and the design specifications of the Nimitz carrier is much less reliable and, in some ways, much less technically sophisticated than the old-fashioned pen Obama used to sign the memoranda.

Go to Part 2: The Digital Age Explained