PDF: how can we avoid over-using Pretty Difficult Files for citizens?

With the more political/government side of my work for our co-op, I often send emails like this:

“Please can you resend the information as plain text, ISO OpenDocument, html, PDF or something else standardised? OpenOffice.org can load most Microsoft Office and save as ISO OpenDocument and PDFs. If you’re stuck with Microsoft Word or some other uncooperative Windows software, you can get a free and fun print-to-PDF add-on from pdfforge.org and a choice of free and fast PDF viewers from pdfreaders.org.”

I emphasise PDF because it is pretty easy to generate from lots of software, but this is very much a last resort. It’s almost always better to have the original data in a simpler format, or as a web page. At least then it has some structure beyond simple presentation.

I hadn’t realised this was a general problem with governments until I saw PDFs are bad for open government, says Sunlight Foundation in US on Free our Data blog last week. Should I change my request to emphasise the original data files?

At our village council, we’re only just starting to get files electronically instead of on paper. Is there a useful practical guide I can give to our officers and reporting members to help us get it right from the start? They’re using the spread of systems and software typical of a council with no specialist IT officer. I’ve not found a guide when I’ve been looking, so I’d appreciate any pointers.

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