Keep Things in Boxes You Can Always Open
A couple of years ago, while we were working on an urban development plan, we asked the local council for all the geographical information they could give us. We soon discovered that the most recent detailed survey was contained in a set of files in an unknown format. Apparently, they’d been made with a programme for which the licence had expired years ago. We had to format a computer to install Office 95 on an equally obsolete version of Windows, but even then we could only recover a small part of the information. It was vitally important official information, paid for with public money, and now it was totally useless.
Does that sound absurd? It is. But that’s just one anecdote from thousands of crazy situations for which the only solution is to use standard, open-source formats: formats than any developer can implement on their own equipment and which facilitate freedom of choice, access and interoperability…
… between programmes:
One of the great drawbacks of architecture software (hey, Autodesk, etc.) is the use of opaque, non-standardised, application-specific file formats. This merely reinforces the lock-in effect, curtailing our freedom to change tools and sustaining de facto monopolies. When you make reverse engineering necessary to allow other programmes to support .dwg, or when you ignore OpenDocument, making it difficult to implement .doc with 100% functionality, the only result is that Autocad and Word will continue to be the predominant programmes.
Standardised open-source formats would restore freedom and reduce workloads: both of those trying to make the existing hotchpotch of formats more user friendly, like the people at the Document Liberation Project, and of specific tools like FreeCAD, which is becoming increasingly compatible with Revit and similar programmes thanks to the IFC format.
… between parties:
In collaborative projects, we may inadvertently impose formats on our partners. This occurs particularly in administrative tasks: requiring documentation in a closed format forces thousands of people to use one specific application. We’ve been struggling with this for years, but the problem persists.
We need formats that can facilitate cooperation without relinquishing the possibility of using different tools. The es.BIM Observatory itself includes the adoption of open-source formats in public invitations to tender as one of its indicators, an initiative which, fortunately, is making progress. Among other things, the boom in “open data” is also encouraging the adoption of more universal formats.
… between moments:
We tend to forget that with the passage of time our tools change but our files remain the same … outdated and inaccessible. Providing support for old files is more feasible if they comply with a widely adopted, well-documented, easy-to-implement standard.
Open-source formats also allow people with different versions of the same programme to collaborate, without having to update, patch or use interchange formats with looking at you, Adobe etc. in order not to lose functionality.
The date base we returned to the council was in a standard format, readable by any GIS programme. Because if we don’t insist on the use of open-source formats by institutions, collaborators and even by our own companies, we may find ourselves in a situation like theirs, with our most valuable information locked away in a black box that we won’t be able to open.