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Better Tools Won’t Save Us

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Sam Smith wrote a post reacting to what I had to say about the Geithner schedule. In it, he argues that pushing for data to be released in better formats may not be the best course of action: tools exist to sidestep the problem.

Sunlight, as an organisation which complains about this often enough, has much better tools at their disposal than complaining about it. As people using computers in 2010, we all have better tools to use on PDFs than we currently use. We often complain about how inaccessible PDFs are, without doing the basic, simple, automatable tasks which can make them readable.

Opening the PDF in acrobat, pressing the "Recognise text using OCR" [button] and then [you'll find that] it's searchable, and Sunlight could republish this for everyone to use (or put up a webservice which adds the OCR text in such a way that when you search, what you get highlighted is the relevant bits of the page where the OCRed text matches). That is possible now.

But, as a community, we prefer to stick to the notion that anything in PDF is utterly locked up in a way which no one can get at.

It's not (really).

It is far from ideal, it's a bugger to use, and it is not the best format for most things, but it's what we've got. And showing how valuable this data is will get us far further than complaining that we can't read a file that most people clearly can in the tools they use. It's the tools we choose to use that are letting us down. And, as a movement, open data has to get better at it, and then it'll be less of a problem for us, and we can spend more time doing what we claim to be wanting to do.

I appreciate the response, but I disagree. Nothing Sam says about what technology makes possible is wrong, per se. And better tools are of course useful and desirable. But the last thing I want is for government to begin thinking that OCR can make up for bad document workflows. It simply can't: even though it happens to work well on the Geithner schedule, OCR remains a fundamentally lossy technology.

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