When Open Standards Really Matter – The Katrina Factor (Groklaw)

If you have any doubts about the direction Massachusetts is following in requiring open standards for all government documents, consider what happened when Hurricane Katrina knocked out almost all communications except the Internet. Cell phones and walkie talkies failed, once again, just as they did in 9/11, as David Kirkpatrick tells us in an article in Fortune:

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, much of the region’s communication systems failed or didn’t work properly. Water and wind knocked out power, toppled phone lines, and destroyed cellphone towers. What systems remained were quickly overwhelmed. When rescue workers’ did have working equipment, like walkie-talkies, they often couldn’t connect with others on different communication systems.

Catch that? “On different communication systems.” The same thing happened after the tsunami disaster in Thailand, as a report just released by the ePolicy Group reports:

“Responding agencies and nongovernmental groups are unable to share information vital to the rescue effort,” the report recalls of the government in Thailand in the tsunami’s immediate aftermath. “Each uses different data and document formats. Relief is slowed; coordination is complicated. The need for common, open standards for disaster management was never more stark or compelling.”

Isn’t it time, after so much suffering, to recognize that keeping people alive is more important than allowing private companies to lock in customers into proprietary systems that don’t then work in an emergency? And why does the Internet always work, no matter who you are or what operating system you use? Because it was built, not on proprietary standards, but entirely on open standards. That’s why you can send an email to me, even if you are using Microsoft Outlook. I don’t run any Microsoft products currently, but because of open standards, I can still read your email, and in an emergency, we will not be disconnected because we are on “different communication systems.” (more…)