It's the data, stupid

During Clinton's successful 1992 campaign James Carville hung a sign in their headquarters with the following three points:

  1. Change vs. more of the same
  2. The economy, stupid
  3. Don't forget health care.

He was attempting to counter Clinton's inclination to offer solutions to any and every topic he encountered. I know I have a similar tendency, and it comes into play when I attempt free software advocacy. As a result I've been working on my own version. My sign looks like this:

  1. Change vs. more of the same
  2. The data, stupid
  3. Don't forget the excluded.

The data is something I have been trying to emphasise of late. It was driven home to me when I was running a training session for a project I'm running providing computers to socially excluded families. I was explaining why it was important that the kids backed up their work onto their memory stick. "If the computer breaks, then we can replace that, but we won't take responsibility for your data. I charge lots of money to retrieve data for people" One of the kids asked me why it cost so much to get lost work back. I drew my example from their school coursework. "Well, if you've spent 40 hours on a piece of exam coursework, even charging that at minimum wage then it's worth £200."

But backup is only the start of this question. The current debate about attempts to get ISO to adopt Microsoft's Office Open XML. This worries me - I know that if I save a file in OpenOffice then I can uncompress the file and read the internal XML. Now I'm not enough of an expert to discuss the relative merits of the two standards, but I know ODF works and a key point is that there should not be competing standards. I also suspect that some of the extreme obfuscation within the OOXML format is part of a longer term vendor lock-in plan. Now, the question is how to deal with this in my advocacy. The story I tell is this...

"I went to retrieve a word processor document I'd written several years before. Actually, quite a long time back, as I had been produced on a freeware DOS word processor. I managed to find a PC with a 5.25 inch floppy disk drive, and copied the file over. But I didn't have the program. I opened the file in a editor and discovered that it was a mess. Weird characters all over the place. I had lost my work."

What is the point of archive and backup if you can't read you data?


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