Open Standards in Massachusetts: Summary of Remarks

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is making history by considering a policy that would ensure the long-term integrity of our data. The importance of this process cannot be overstated. The implications of a policy that supports the development and implementation of open standards, if done right, would have substantial positive implications over the long run, here in the Commonwealth but also in other states and countries around the world. The Commonwealth’s leadership in this area could establish a model for others to follow, as it has so many times before on so many issues.

Several things are at stake in the move to such a policy:

* Interoperability: Creating and maintaining an open information ecosystem that achieves interoperability between computing environments, applications, and sources of data – whether created last year or 25 years from now – is the primary motivation for moving to an open standards policy.

* Access and Control: Ensuring that citizens and the state have access to our data and the ability to control our data long into the future, grounded in the knowledge that electronic data is becoming more and more important. It’s about the users — in the parlance of the states, the citizens — after all.

* Choice and Cost: Establishing a truly open standard can ensure that the Commonwealth, over the long-term, has the greatest range of technology choices and the lowest technology costs through competition. An open policy is not one that results in lock-in to a single technology vendor, nor one that precludes any vendor – which may be the most competitive – from participating.

* Innovation: Promoting the continued innovation in information technology, on Rte. 128, in university computer science labs, and in garages throughout the Commonwealth and beyond, supporting economic development in the process.
If there is any single concept that encompasses these themes, it is generativity, the policy prescription that my colleague Jonathan Zittrain calls for in his new paper, The Generative Internet.
A policy for the Commonwealth that supports open standards, if properly conceived and implemented, can help to achieve these goals. To get there, the legislature and the executive branch have a hard job.

That job is not to choose between competing technology vendors, circa 2005, in a fast-changing marketplace. The elephant in the room is the struggle between Microsoft on the one hand and IBM and Sun on the other. But that struggle is not, and cannot be, the real story on open standards policy. It’s essential to bear in mind the state’s proper role vis-a-vis this marketplace — a marketplace which may in fact establish, and re-establish, other open standards over time, all plausibly based off of the same concept of XML. Consider, for instance, the “web 2.0” version of this discussion and witness the dramatic changes in the syndicated technologies space — with RSS, Atom, OPML, the MetaWeblog API, and their ilk over the past few years — which, to all but a few visionaries, were unthinkable as possible “open document formats” a short while ago. The key is to ensure enough flexibility in the process so that those who know the technologies and the implications of any changes can help the state to adjust its approach on the fly as progress, inevitably, marches on — and such that citizens, or users, are not the ones left behind in the long-run.

Information technologies are increasingly important to our democracy. A policy that seeks to ensure a citizen’s access to information and a citizen’s ability to transform data with as few constraints by those who make technology as possible is a worthy one. These goals should not be pursued by the state without the active involvement of the technical community; the legislator needs to get to know the technology developer, and those who set technology standards, much more intimately if the state is going to play in this game.

The question before the Commonwealth today is not whether to strive for such lofty goals, but rather how to meet the challenge of crafting and implementing a policy that will in fact achieve them over the long run. If the Commonwealth gets this policy right, others will follow. If the Commonwealth gets this right, it will be good not only for our state’s economy but also for our democracy.
Summary of Remarks at An Open Forum on the Future of Electronic Data Formats for the Commonwealth, December 14, 2005 at the Massachusetts State House

John G. Palfrey, Jr.
Executive Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Clinical Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Sins of Omission in a Globe op-ed

I probably should have known better, but in devoting 750 words to an op-ed in the Boston Globe about the special election in Somerville, Medford, Winchester, and Woburn, I managed tomake a few sins of omission.

The primary things that were left on the cutting room floor, but should not have been, are twofold:

* I should no doubt have found a way to include also arguably the most prominent Democratic blogging site, Blue Mass. Group, which had a great deal of terrific coverage of, and associated commentary about, the race, recapped here. I chose one independent blogger, Frederick Clarkson, whose commentary I followed in the special election, and whose efforts merited inclusion — but so too did the efforts of several others, most notably Blue Mass. Group. So, apologies to the many others (including sco) who blogged or commented on the race and whose contributions I did not call out. The point was just to celebrate the conversation that this group of people has been involved in and to urge politicians to engage more deeply and effectively with it.

* A few people wrote to me to say that I should have mentioned that former Rep. Joe Mackey also had a website. I see their point: my op-ed, with trimmed words a bit too carefully chosen, implied that only Pat Jehlen had a website and that her three opponents did not. That wasn’t my point. I was making the argument that a “simple search” (try this, or this, for instance, which may change, and probably will — even by virtue of my own links and those of others, that will drive up his site’s PageRank) in Google turned up only Rep. Jehlen’s site, which is true. I actually made a few other simple searches, which also did not turn up former Rep. Mackey’s site. My searches included a search string “Joe Mackey State Senate” which would seem to be well-targeted to retrieve his site. Rep. Mackey did indeed have one, and surely he and his supporters deserve credit for it. My point was only to say that a casual observer, as most voters are for most elections, who went online to find out information about the race would most likely have found most information about Rep. Jehlen, and much less about the three other (quite strong) candidates for state Senate. Apologies, too, for misleading some readers.

(Score another one for having a blog in addition to a mainstream press: being able to admit to such sins and having a place to set out the record a bit more clearly, if only in retrospect.)

Voting for Pat Jehlen for State Senate today

This morning, I cast the 108th ballot in a special election for State Senator at the Dilboy VFW Post in Davis Square, Somerville. Despite a sprinkling rain and the low turnout, the streets outside my polling place were crawling with people holding signs — a wonderful sign of a vibrant local democracy. I got a flyer about keep a divestment measure off the November ballot and saw signs for each of the four candidates — Michael Callahan (Governor’s Councilor), Paul Casey (current state rep, who opposes gay marriage, which knocks him out of the running for me), Patricia Jehlen (current state rep), and Joe Mackey (former state rep).

I cast my ballot for Pat Jehlen. Each of the Democratic candidates (yes, so disclosed, I am a Massachusetts Democrat) in this special election strike me as well-qualified. I am voting for Rep. Jehlen primarily because she, or rather her team, has made the effort to connect with me. I have lived in her district, right on the Somerville/Cambridge line, for the last four or five years, and I’ve enjoyed getting her e-mails to constituents; on the one occasion I’ve contacted her staff they’ve been responsive to my issue; and during the past few frantic months of the campaign, a few door-knockers have rung our bell, including a friend from the political world, Christa Kelleher, a professor and long-time political activist. They hung a “get out the vote” flyer on my doorknob last night. None of the other candidates reached out nearly so successfully. I give Rep. Jehlen a lot of credit for doing the blocking-and-tackling of good old fashioned campaigning both during her term as State Rep and as candidate for the State Senate. (And, of course, her record on the issues is good, too. I like in particular her stances on education, health care, and the environment, on which she has been a leader for many years.)

Every Election Day rocks, on some level. This particular election is tinged with the sadness of the death of former State Senator Charles Shannon. What a privilege to be able to choose his successor in a well-contested election.