The Open Standards team was asked 4 years ago by the Open Standards Board to help government publish documents in a more open, transparent and accessible way. We’ve since made progress in achieving these objectives but we still have more work to do.
This blog focuses on how far we've come in our mission to make Open Document Format (ODF) the default standard for editable documents. ODF is not intended to replace read-only documents like PDFs, so we have not included PDF usage in our statistics below.
The problem with government documents
The original problem facing government was that too many documents were published in a closed format. These documents appear corrupted when opened in a web-based editor, as shown below.
We started by promoting the use of Open Document Format
We knew that our users wanted to read and edit documents on a wide range of operating systems without restrictions.
Our solution was to switch government from using closed format documents to using ODF. This standard allows users to open and edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations on any platform, so no user is at a disadvantage.
When the Open Standards Board adopted ODF in 2014, our intention was to end government reliance on closed document formats and to have ODF as the main source of editable document attachments. That hasn't happened yet. We recognise why this is the case and the work we’ve still got to do (detailed below). It’s a work in progress.
Government documents are getting more user friendly...
We've recorded a big drop in the number of closed format documents being uploaded to GOV.UK in the last 2 years.
This graph shows that there are more ODF documents now being uploaded than closed formats. But there’s also been a slight drop in the number of open formats being uploaded.
This drop in total number of attachments is because more departments are realising that HTML – the language of the web – is suitable for publishing documents. Departments now know that they can publish their content in a web-friendly and accessible way without uploading and sharing files. We see this as a positive movement. HTML is an open standard which has been selected by the Open Standards Board for viewing documents.
What documents do our users download?
The graph below shows how many times different file formats (excluding PDF as it is not editable) were downloaded from GOV.UK in the first quarter of 2018. This data helps inform some of the next actions we need to take.
Comma-separated values (CSV) files are an open format and are the most popular data filetype on GOV.UK. You can also see that ODS is slightly more popular than Microsoft Excel files (XLS).
From looking through some of the documents, we know that Microsoft Excel (XLS, XLSX, and XLSM) files are often used to gather information from users. Eventually, we hope these formats will be replaced with HTML forms.
The Microsoft Word (DOC) files are mostly older content. We need to make sure that legacy documents are refreshed so that they are accessible for everyone.
ODT is downloaded about a third of the time, compared to DOCX. We need to see whether all DOCX attachments have an equivalent ODT available.
Finally, the ZIP files sometimes contain open formats, sometimes closed. The Rich Text File (RTF) format content is mostly legacy forms.
Barriers to using open documents
Some departments haven't updated their workflows to publish ODF documents. This is because we haven’t been able to promote the format, and departments have not had enough support to help them make the transition to an open publishing process.
We also need to improve our user guidance to help people find updated software which is compatible with ODF. Every modern office suite supports ODF, but we still hear from users who are confused about how they should open these files, especially on mobile devices.
Our plan to continue improving document publication
Based on our data, we have created a 5-step plan to get our mission back on track during 2018.
- We’ve updated how to publish on GOV.UK guidance to make sure GOV.UK publishers are clear they must provide an open standard format version of the documents they’re uploading.
- Where we see a department regularly uploading closed formats, without providing an open equivalent, we will visit their publishing team and help them to understand the benefits of open formats.
- We will review historic documents that get lots of downloads and work with departments to republish them as ODF documents or HTML.
- We’re improving guidance to help users who are unsure of how to open ODF. This will include better information for Welsh speakers.
- Finally, we will collect statistics on what files have been uploaded and downloaded quarterly. This will enable us to track whether our actions are making a difference.
We cannot have important documents published in formats which do not meet open standards. Government documents are for everyone. Whether you're using Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux, Chrome OS, iOS, Android, or any other system - you have the right to read what we have written and we will continue on our journey to make documents open and accessible.
Leave a comment below or email the Open Standards team if you need support making your organisation’s documents more open and accessible.
If this sounds like a good place to work, take a look at Working for GDS - we're usually in search of talented people to come and join the team.