Open standards and open source

This book almost exclusively describes technologies that are described by open standards or that are implemented in open source software, or both.

For a technology to be an open standard, it must be described by a public document that provides enough information so that anyone can write software to work with technology. In addition, the description must not be subject to patents or other restrictions of use. Ideally, the document is published and maintained by an international, non-profit organisation. In practice, the important consequence is that the technology is not bound to a single software product.

This is in contrast to proprietary technologies, where the definitive description of the technology is not made available and is only officially supported by a single software product.

Open source software is software for which the source code is publicly available. This makes it possible, through scrutiny of the source code if necessary, to understand how a software product works. It also means that, if necessary, the behavior of the software can be modified. In practice, the important consequence is that the software is not bound to a single software developer.

This is in contrast to proprietary software, where the software is only available from a single developer, the software is a “black-box”, and changes, including corrections of errors, can only be made by that software developer.

The obvious advantage of using open standards and open source software is that the reader need not purchase any expensive proprietary software in order to benefit from the information in this book, but that is not the primary reason for this choice.

The main reason for selecting open standards and open source software is that this is the only way to ensure that we know, or can find out, where our data are on the computer and what happens to our data when we manipulate the data with software, and it is the only way to guarantee that we can have free access to our data now and in the future.

The significance of these points is demonstrated by the growing list of governments and public institutions that are switching to open standards and open source software for storing and working with information. In particular, for the storage of public records, it does not make sense to lock the information up in a format that cannot be accessed except by proprietary software. Similarly, for the dissemination and reproducibility of research, it makes sense to fully disclose a complete description of how an analysis was conducted in addition to publishing the research results.

Paul Murrell

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