Category Archives: Culture & Society

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A Complete Literacy Experience For Young Children

From the “I should have posted this months ago” vault…

When I led technology development at One Laptop per Child Australia, I maintained two golden rules:

  1. everything that we release must ‘just work’ from the perspective of the user (usually a child or teacher), and
  2. no special technical expertise should ever be required to set-up, use or maintain the technology.

In large part, I believe that we were successful.

Once the more obvious challenges have been identified and cleared, some more fundamental problems become evident. Our goal was to improve educational opportunities for children as young as possible, but proficiently using computers to input information can require a degree of literacy.

Sugar Labs have done stellar work in questioning the relevance of the desktop metaphor for education, and in coming up with a more suitable alternative. This proved to be a remarkable platform for developing a touch-screen laptop, in the form of the XO-4 Touch: the icons-based user interface meant that we could add touch capabilities with relatively few user-visible tweaks. The screen can be swivelled and closed over the keyboard as with previous models, meaning that this new version can be easily converted into a pure tablet at will.

Revisiting Our Assumptions

Still, a fundamental assumption has long gone unchallenged on all computers: the default typeface and keyboard. It doesn’t at all represent how young children learn the English alphabet or literacy. Moreover, at OLPC Australia we were often dealing with children who were behind on learning outcomes, and who were attending school with almost no exposure to English (since they speak other languages at home). How are they supposed to learn the curriculum when they can barely communicate in the classroom?

Looking at a standard PC keyboard, you’ll see that the keys are printed with upper-case letters. And yet, that is not how letters are taught in Australian schools. Imagine that you’re a child who still hasn’t grasped his/her ABCs. You see a keyboard full of unfamiliar symbols. You press one, and on the screen pops up a completely different looking letter! The keyboard may be in upper-case, but by default you’ll get the lower-case variants on the screen.

A standard PC keyboard
A standard PC keyboard

Unfortunately, the most prevalent touch-screen keyboard on the marke isn’t any better. Given the large education market for its parent company, I’m astounded that this has not been a priority.

The Apple iOS keyboard
The Apple iOS keyboard

Better alternatives exist on other platforms, but I still was not satisfied.

A Re-Think

The solution required an examination of how children learn, and the challenges that they often face when doing so. The end result is simple, yet effective.

The standard OLPC XO mechanical keyboard (above) versus the OLPC Australia Literacy keyboard (below)
The standard OLPC XO mechanical keyboard (above) versus the OLPC Australia Literacy keyboard (below)

This image contrasts the standard OLPC mechanical keyboard with the OLPC Australia Literacy keyboard that we developed. Getting there required several considerations:

  1. a new typeface, optimised for literacy
  2. a cleaner design, omitting characters that are not common in English (they can still be entered with the AltGr key)
  3. an emphasis on lower-case
  4. upper-case letters printed on the same keys, with the Shift arrow angled to indicate the relationship
  5. better use of symbols to aid instruction

One interesting user story with the old keyboard that I came across was in a remote Australian school, where Aboriginal children were trying to play the Maze activity by pressing the opposite arrows that they were supposed to. Apparently they thought that the arrows represented birds’ feet! You’ll see that we changed the arrow heads on the literacy keyboard as a result.

We explicitly chose not to change the QWERTY layout. That’s a different debate for another time.

The Typeface

The abc123 typeface is largely the result of work I did with John Greatorex. It is freely downloadable (in TrueType and FontForge formats) and open source.

After much research and discussions with educators, I was unimpressed with the other literacy-oriented fonts available online. Characters like ‘a’ and ‘9’ (just to mention a couple) are not rendered in the way that children are taught to write them. Young children are also susceptible to confusion over letters that look similar, including mirror-images of letters. We worked to differentiate, for instance, the lower-case L from the upper-case i, and the lower-case p from the lower-case q.

Typography is a wonderfully complex intersection of art and science, and it would have been foolhardy for us to have started from scratch. We used as our base the high-quality DejaVu Sans typeface. This gave us a foundation that worked well on screen and in print. Importantly for us, it maintained legibility at small point sizes on the 200dpi XO display.

On the Screen

abc123 is a suitable substitute for DejaVu Sans. I have been using it as the default user interface font in Ubuntu for over a year.

It looks great in Sugar as well. The letters are crisp and easy to differentiate, even at small point sizes. We made abc123 the default font for both the user interface and in activities (applications).

The abc123 font in Sugar's Write activity, on an XO laptop screen
The abc123 font in Sugar’s Write activity, on an XO laptop screen

Likewise, the touch-screen keyboard is clear and simple to use.

The abc123 font on the XO touch-screen keyboard, on an XO laptop screen
The abc123 font on the XO touch-screen keyboard, on an XO laptop screen

The end result is a more consistent literacy experience across the whole device. What you press on the hardware or touch-screen keyboard will be reproduced exactly on the screen. What you see on the user interface is also what you see on the keyboards.

Interview with Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network

Adam Holt and I were interviewed last night by the Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network about our not-for-profit work to improve educational opportunities for children in the developing world.

We talked about One Laptop per Child, OLPC Australia and Sugar Labs. We discussed the challenges of providing education in the developing world, and how that compares with the developed world.

Australia poses some of its own challenges. As a country that is 90% urbanised, the remaining 10% are scattered across vast distances. The circumstances of these communities often share both developed and developing world characteristics. We developed the One Education programme to accommodate this.

These lessons have been developed further into Unleash Kids, an initiative that we are currently working on to support the community of volunteers worldwide and take to the movement to the next level.

Published in Engineers Without Borders Magazine

Engineers Without Borders asked me to write something for their Humanitarian Engineering magazine about One Laptop per Child. Here is what I wrote.

The school bell rings, and the children filter into the classroom. Each is holding an XO – their own personal learning device.

Students from Doomadgee often use their XOs for outdoors education. The sunlight-readable screen
combined with the built-in camera allow for hands-on exploration of their environment.

This is no ordinary classroom. As if by magic, the green and white XOs automatically see each other as soon as they are started up, allowing children to easily share information and collaborate on activities together. The kids converse on how they can achieve the tasks at hand. One girl is writing a story on her XO, and simultaneously on the same screen she can see the same story being changed by a boy across the room. Another group of children are competing in a game that involves maths questions.

Children in Kiwirrkurra, WA, collaborate on an activity with help from teachers.

Through the XO, the learning in this classroom has taken on a peer-to-peer character. By making learning more fun and engaging, children are better equipped to discover and pursue their interests. Through collaboration and connectivity, they can exchange knowledge with their peers and with the world. In the 21st century, textbooks should be digital and interactive. They should be up-to-date and locally relevant. They should be accessible and portable.

Of course, the teacher’s role remains vital, and her role has evolved into that of a facilitator in this knowledge network. She is better placed to provide more individual pathways for learning. Indeed the teacher is a learner as well, as the children quickly adapt to the new technology and learn skills that they can teach back.

A teacher in Jigalong, WA, guides a workgroup of children in their class.

Helping to keep the classroom session smoothly humming along are children who have proven themselves to be proficient with assisting their classmates and fixing problems (including repairing hardware). These kids have taken part in training programmes that award them for their skills around the XO. In the process, they are learning important life skills around problem solving and teamwork.

Dozens of students in Doomadgee State School are proficient in fixing XO hardware.

This is all part of the One Education experience, an initiative from One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Australia. This educational programme provides a holistic educational scaffolding around the XO, the laptop developed by the One Laptop per Child Association that has its roots in the internationally-acclaimed MIT Media Lab in the USA.

The XO was born from a desire to empower each and every child in the world with their own personal learning device. Purpose-built for young children and using solid open source software, the XO provides an ideal platform for classroom learning. Designed for outdoors, with a rugged design and a high-resolution sunlight-readable screen, education is no longer confined to a classroom or even to the school grounds. Learning time needn’t stop with the school bell – many children are taking their XOs home. Also important is the affordability and full repairability of the devices, making it cost-effective versus non-durable and ephemeral items such as stationery, textbooks and other printed materials. There are over 3 million XOs in distribution, and in some countries (such as Uruguay) every child owns one.

A One Education classroom in Kenya.

One Education’s mission is to provide educational opportunities to every child, no matter how remote or disadvantaged. The digital divide is a learning divide. This can be conquered through a combination of modern technology, training and support, provided in a manner that empowers local schools and communities. The story told above is already happening in many classrooms around the country and the world.

A One Education classroom in northern Thailand.

With teacher training often being the Achilles’ heel of technology programmes in the field of education, One Education focuses only on teachers who have proven their interest and aptitude through the completion of a training course. Only then are they eligible to receive XOs (with an allocation of spare parts) into their classroom. Certified teachers are eligible for ongoing support from OLPC Australia, and can acquire more hardware and parts as required.

As a not-for-profit, OLPC Australia works with sponsors to heavily subsidise the costs of the One Education programme for low socio-economic status schools. In this manner, the already impressive total cost of ownership can be brought down even further.

High levels of teacher turnover are commonplace in remote Australian schools. By providing courses online, training can be scalable and cost-effective. Local teachers can even undergo further training to gain official trainer status themselves. Some schools have turned this into a business – sending their teacher-trainers out to train teachers in other schools.

Students in Geeveston in Tasmania celebrate their attainment of XO-champion status, recognising
their proficiency in using the XO and their helpfulness in the classroom.

With backing from the United Nations Development Programme, OLPC are tackling the Millennium Development Goals by focusing on Goal 2 (Achieve Universal Primary Education). The intertwined nature of the goals means that progress made towards this goal in turn assists the others. For example, education on health can lead to better hygiene and lower infant mortality. A better educated population is better empowered to help themselves, rather than being dependent on hand-outs. For people who cannot attend a classroom (perhaps because of remoteness, ethnicity or gender), the XO provides an alternative. OLPC’s focus on young children means that children are becoming engaged in their most formative years. The XO has been built with a minimal environmental footprint, and can be run off-grid using alternate power sources such as solar panels.

One Education is a young initiative, formed based on experiences learnt from technology deployments in Australia and other countries. Nevertheless, results in some schools have been staggering. Within one year of XOs arriving in Doomadgee State School in northern Queensland, the percentage of Year 3 pupils meeting national literacy standards leapt from 31% to 95%.

A girl at Doomadgee State School very carefully removes the screen from an XO.

2013 will see a rapid expansion of the programme. With $11.7m in federal government funding, 50,000 XOs will be distributed as part of One Education. These schools will be receiving the new XO Duo (AKA XO-4 Touch), a new XO model developed jointly with the OLPC Association. This version adds a touch-screen user experience while maintaining the successful laptop form factor. The screen can swivel and fold backwards over the keyboard, converting the laptop into a tablet. This design was chosen in response to feedback from educators that a hardware keyboard is preferred to a touch-screen for entering large amounts of information. As before, the screen is fully sunlight-readable. Performance and battery life have improved significantly, and it is fully repairable as before.

As One Education expands, there are growing demands on OLPC Australia to improve the offering. Being a holistic project, there are plenty of ways in which we could use help, including in education, technology and logistics. We welcome you to join us in our quest to provide educational opportunities to the world’s children.

Are you sick of highly paid teachers???

This has been making the rounds lately and is an absolute gem:

Teachers’ hefty salaries are driving up taxes, and they only work 9 or 10 months a year! It’s time we put things in perspective and pay them for what they do — babysit! We can get that for minimum wage. That’s right. Let’s give them $3.00 an hour and only the hours they worked; not any of that silly planning time, or any time they spend before or after school. That would be $19.50 a day (7:45 to 3:00 PM with 45 min off for lunch and planning that equals 6 1/2 hours). Each parent should pay $19.50 a day for these teachers to baby-sit their children. Now how many students do they teach in a day… maybe 30? So that’s $19.50 x 30 = $585.00 a day.

However, remember they only work 180 days a year!!! I am not going to pay them for any holidays. LET’S SEE…. That’s $585 X 180 = $105,300 per year. (Hold on! My calculator needs new batteries.) What about those special education teachers and the ones with Master’s degrees or higher duties? Well, we could pay them minimum wage ($7.75), and just to be fair, round it off to $8.00 an hour (but we shouldn’t get carried away). That would be $8 X 6 1/2 hours X 30 children X 180 days = $280,800 per year. Wait a minute — there’s something wrong here! There sure is!

The average teacher’s salary (nation wide) is $50,000. $50,000/180 days = $277.77/per day/30 students=$9.25/6.5 hours = $1.42 per hour per student — a very inexpensive baby-sitter and they even EDUCATE your kids!) WHAT A DEAL!!!!

Make a teacher smile; re-post this to show appreciation for all educators.

I don’t think the dollar values are for Australia — our minimum wage is higher than $3.00. The point should be obvious nonetheless: we seriously undervalue the people who are responsible for educating our children.

Why ‘Free and Open’ matters

Adobe is dropping Linux support for their Adobe AIR development platform. To be honest, I don’t really care. Why? Because I’ve been careful enough to not tie my efforts to a proprietary platform.

I’ve had several groups offer to write applications/activities for OLPC Australia using proprietary tools like AIR. I’ve discouraged them every time. Had we gone with the ‘convenient’ route and acquiesced, we would have been in quite a spot of bother right now. My precious resources would have to be spent on porting or rewriting all of that work, or just leaving it to bit-rot.

A beauty of Sugar and Linux is that they are not dependent on a single entity. We can develop with the confidence of knowing that our code will continue to work, or at least can be made to continue to work in the face of underlying platform changes. This embodies our Core Principle #5, Free and Open.

Free and Open means that children can be content creators. The television age relegated children (and everyone, for that matter) to just being consumers of content. I have very fond childhood memories of attempts to counter that, but those efforts pale in comparison to the possibilities afforded to us today by modern digital technologies. We now have the opportunity to properly enable children to be in charge of their learning. Education becomes active, not passive. There’s a reason why we refer to Sugar applications as activities.

Growing up in the 80s, my recollections are of a dynamic computing market. Machines like the ZX Spectrum and the early Commodore models inspired a generation of kids into learning about how computers work. By extension, that sparked interest in the sciences: mathematics, physics, engineering, etc.. Those machines were affordable and quite open to the tinkerer. My first computer (which from vague recollection was a Dick Smith VZ200) had only a BASIC interpreter and 4k of memory. We didn’t purchase the optional tape drive, so I had to type my programs in manually from the supplied book. Along the way, I taught myself how to make my own customisations to the code. I didn’t need to learn that skill, but I choose to take the opportunity presented to me.

Likewise, I remember (and still have in my possession, sadly without the machine) the detailed technical binders supplied with my IBM PC. I think I recognised early on that I was more interested in software, because I didn’t spend as much time on the supplied hardware schematics and documentation. However, the option was there, and I could have made the choice to get more into hardware.

Those experiences were very defining parts of my life, helping to shape me into the Free Software, open standards loving person I am. Being able to get involved in technical development, at whatever level of my choosing, is something I was able to experience from a very early age. I was able to be active, not just consume. As I have written about before, even the king of proprietary software and vendor lock-in himself, Bill Gates, has acknowledged a similar experience as a tipping point in his life.

With this in mind, I worry about the superficial solutions being promoted in the education space. A recent article on the BBC’s Click laments that children are becoming “digitally illiterate”. Most of the solutions proposed in the article (and attached video) are highly proprietary, being based on platforms such as Microsoft’s Windows and Xbox. The lone standout appears to be the wonderful-looking Raspberry Pi device, which is based on Linux and Free Software.

It is disappointing that the same organisation that had the foresight to give us the BBC Computer Literacy Project (with the BBC Micro as its centrepiece) now appears to have disregarded a key benefit of that programme. By providing the most advanced BASIC interpreter of the time, the BBC Micro was well suited to education. Sophisticated applications could be written in an interpreted language that could be inspected and modified by anyone.

Code is like any other form of work, whether it be a document, artwork, music or something else. From a personal perspective, I want to be able to access (read and modify) my work at any time. From an ethical perspective, we owe it to our children to ensure that they continue to have this right. From a societal perspective, we need to ensure that our culture can persevere through the ages. I have previously demonstrated how digital preservation can dramatically reduce the longevity of information, comparing a still-legible thousand-year-old book against its ‘modern’ laserdisc counterpart that became virtually undecipherable after only sixteen years. I have also explained how this problem presents a real and present danger to the freedoms (at least in democratic countries) that we take for granted.

Back in the world of code, at least, things are looking up. The Internet is heading towards HTML5/JavaScript, and even Microsoft and Adobe are following suit. This raises some interesting considerations for Sugar. Maybe we need to be thinking of writing educational activities in HTML5, like those at tinygames? Going even further, perhaps we should be thinking about integrating HTML5 more closely into the Sugar framework?

I’ll finish with a snippet from a speech given by US President Obama in March (thanks to Greg DeKoenigsberg for bringing it to the attention of the community):

We’re working to make sure every school has a 21st-century curriculum like you do. And in the same way that we invested in the science and research that led to the breakthroughs like the Internet, I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, and educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up.

OLPC support from the Prime Minister of Australia

We at OLPC Australia celebrated our first birthday with a massive bang — a black-tie gala event held at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Sydney Harbour. It was a wonderful night of celebrating Australian Indigenous art, music, culture and food. Corporate sponsors generously donated to the cause.

Of special note was our keynote speaker. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd voiced his support for our mission, extending deductible gift recipient status to all donations made to us. Also in attendance was the Assistant Treasurer and other representatives of state and federal government.

Myself and other members of the OLPC Australia team were fortunate enough to meet with Kevin before the official proceedings commenced. He took the time to converse individually with each of us. I related my experiences in Dhalinybuy, where every child has their own computer on the Internet. This ratio of 1:1 access is almost unheard of even in city schools. I was pleased to see one of our anecdotes make it into his address, not very long after our conversation.

It’s an indescribable feeling knowing that you’re on the radar of the highest political office in the land. We are a small team and have a long way to go, but I firmly believe that we are on track to empower remote communities across Australia.

Windows 7 netbooks in NSW schools?

I was asked by a journalist to comment on the NSW government decision to distribute Windows 7 “mini notebooks” across schools. Here’s my reply:

I used to work with satellite networks, providing Internet access to
most of NSW before wired broadband was widely available (and it still
isn’t in a lot of places). We had many rural schools and local
councils as customers. The difficulties of getting computing and
Internet resources to remote areas (with associated infrastructure,
training, etc.) cannot be underestimated.

Firstly examining from a business perspective, how is this to be
funded, given that NSW is in a poor financial state and the government
has been axing projects left, right and centre? What alternatives were
considered? How were they evaluated? Was there an open tendering
process?

What matters most is what we can achieve with this programme. Simply
throwing a computer to every student won’t cut it. There needs to be a
clear plan and set of outcomes defined, as you would have with any
reasonable business arrangement. This press release doesn’t touch upon
any of that.

What is the opportunity cost of funding this scheme? Could the
resources have been spent on better facilities for the children or
better teachers’ salaries?

The phrase ‘new era’ implies some sort of major change. Has this been
adequately planned for?

Teachers have a hard enough time keeping up with technology. Will they
be given training and continued assistance?

How will these devices be integrated into curricula? How can they
become effective teaching aids and not just expensive appendages?

Will the focus be on teaching or training? I am a firm believer that
schools should teach children to be clever and think for themselves,
creating the basis for a flexible workforce. They should not simply be
trained to memorise the functions of a particular version of a piece
of software. Rote-learning like that will be worthless when they
graduate and enter the workforce.

Will there be any additional costs required to properly use the
equipment? Are classrooms adequately equipped with appropriate
electrical wiring and capacity to charge all of these? What about
network connectivity? What will it take to maintain the infrastructure
required for these, including hardware and software for servers,
routers and so on.

In fact, there is no mention of supporting infrastructure at all. What
are the costs of the entire life cycle of these devices, the software,
maintenance, infrastructure and so on?

Who will own the notebooks? Will students be free to explore and learn
about their computers, or will they be locked down? Can they install
whatever software they want? Will they be tied to particular
applications and file formats?

There is no mention at all of what software will be installed on these
computers. An operating system without applications is useless. Will
the included software be enough to empower and teach our children?
Have deals been struck with other software suppliers? Will there be
additional costs to acquire the software for particular subjects? Who
bears this cost – the school system or parents?

Has open source software been considered at all? There’s plenty of
open source software that works happily on top of Windows. Microsoft
may have discounted Windows, but did they include an office suite?
OpenOffice would do the job just fine.

Even if you believe the tired-old argument that the state MUST
purchase Microsoft Office for each and every student (which works out
to tens of millions of dollars), wouldn’t it be better to choose
OpenOffice for free, and spend those millions on new library books or
hospital beds?

I’ll admit that OpenOffice isn’t exactly the same thing (it’s better
in some ways, not as good in others), but it’s so similar that it
doesn’t really make a difference. It is worth tens of millions of
dollars just to get the Real Thing? Does learning MS Office 2003 in
school really prepare you for using Office 2007 (with its completely
new interface) once you hit the workforce? Refer to my earlier
comments about teaching versus training.

Are they including graphics software for the art and design classes?
Are taxpayers going to have to pay for a copy of Adobe Creative Suite
for everyone? How about we save the hundreds of dollars per student
and use the GIMP and Inkscape instead? Examples such as these abound,
and there are plenty of other open source applications that simply
have no good parallel in the proprietary world.

I find it strange that the country’s largest state would tie the
education of its children to a totally unproven operating system. A
smart purchaser – especially one purchasing at such a grand scale –
would wait until the software had been out for a while and had been
thoroughly tested by consumers around the world. Internal testing is
one thing, but you cannot beat real-world experience.

A point-zero release is sure to have rough edges, and it would have
been far wiser to wait for at least the first service pack like most
organisations do. Can you imagine the fury that would have been
unleashed if the NSW Government had decided to kit out the state with
Windows Vista before its release? Sure it sounded good before it came
out (“The wow starts now!”), but it lost its lustre very soon after
unveiling. Many people today still cling onto Windows XP, and others
have switched to Linux and Mac OS X, in response to Vista’s abysmal
state.

The OLPC Project has already identified and addressed many of the
issues that may be faced. They have done this through developing a
combination of hardware, software, infrastructure, training,
procedures and learning material. It would be wise to learn from their
experiences.

The whole mini notebook revolution started with Linux. Starting with
the OLPC XO laptop, Linux has proven to be a flexible and capable
operating system suitable for small devices. Its resistance to viruses
and other network nasties is legendary. The last thing I’d want is for
my child’s computer to get infected and start showing kiddie porn.
Anti-virus and anti-malware software are band-aid solutions. I’m not
going to build a castle on a swamp.

Commercially, devices like the Asus Eee PC could not have existed if
it were not for Linux. It forced Microsoft to actually compete for
once, by resurrecting Windows XP and slashing its price to a more
reasonable level.

The press release claims that this scheme is ‘unparalleled in
education globally’. There is considerable risk in being first off the
block. I’ve already explained the risks of using an unproven operating
system. It would be more prudent to learn from other large scale
rollouts in education.

Take the Republic of Macedonia, for example. Despite being one of the
poorest nations in Europe, they are the only nation to have one
computer per student. They achieved this through the use of Edubuntu,
a variant of the popular Ubuntu GNU/Linux operating system that is
specially tailored for education and learning. With that, they got a
vast library of open source educational software, which was all
translated into their native language.

Similar stories abound in places like Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Collectively known as the BRIC countries, they are considered to be
the up-and-coming nations to watch over the next few decades. Their
economies have been growing at breakneck rates, partly because they
have been clever in their investments. These nation states recognise
that education is the key to long-term economic success.

You might say that these countries are poor and that is why they are
choosing to use open source software. It is true that they don’t have
plenty of money to throw around, but does New South Wales? Does
Australia? Where would you want your tax dollars spent?

Energy conservation for security

I was having a discussion at work, and it occurred to us that a simple way of improving our data security is to turn machines off (or suspend, hibernate, etc.) when they aren’t required. Now this isn’t exactly rocket science, but what I found most interesting is how this ties into our energy conservation plans. Obviously, it means we save money on electricity. However, it also means that in reducing our network footprint we also reduce our environmental footprint.

Convincing a company to save energy can be difficult, but knowing that this also enhances security can be a winning argument.

Will it be Domesday or Doomsday for our information?

The ABC have a piece from National Library of Australia web archiving manager Paul Koerbin, about the importance of digital records preservation.

Of equal importance, how can we be sure that we can actually read those archives in the future? Literacy of Egyptian Hieroglyphs was long-gone by the 18th century, and it took the discovery of the Rosetta Stone for them to start making sense again.

It’s difficult enough deciphering human language. Understanding machine language is another thing entirely.

I’ve written about this in the past, contrasting the thousand-year-old Domesday Book (which is still legible) with the BBC Domesday Project (which was rendered virtually unreadable a mere sixteen years after production).

The means of preserving our culture for digital preservation is to use open standards. If the means for ‘reading’ the information is widely documented and understood, without any encumbrances, we stand a much greater chance of being able to interpret it in a couple of hundred years.

I’ve got essays from school written only ten years ago, and I can’t read them any more as they’re stored in a proprietary file format that is no longer supported.

Imagine you ran a company that had important and valuable written records stretching back for decades. Storing vast libraries of paper is expensive and inefficient, so you decide to digitise them all. That’s great — you now have a system that is easy to manage and search. Ten years later, you want to migrate your now-ageing data management system to something more modern. Only, you can’t — it’s all stored in a proprietary format that cannot be accessed by anything else.

If you had kept those paper records, you would have still had access to that information. Your choices now are to continue with your old, obsolete system for all eternity, or hire some clever hacker to decipher the file format. With no equivalent of a Rosetta Stone, that’s no mean task. After spending buckets of money on this avoidable problem, and losing even more due to inefficiencies and competitive disadvantage from the old system, you’d be wise to make sure it cannot happen again.

This is a very common kind of scenario. If our information can’t even last ten years, how can it last a thousand?

From a business perspective, open standards protect the independence of a company. It means no vendor lock-in, so you are not stuck paying monopoly prices. Through the creation of a free market surrounding a method/technology, open standards give you the freedom to select the vendors, products, methods and technologies that suit your requirements best, or you can even create your own. They are the ultimate in risk mitigation, and through their flexibility can also open avenues for competitive advantage. They just make good business sense.

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