PDF has its place in government online

Laurie Sweezey has a big job on her hands. As the head of e-government at Ontario’s Office of the Corporate Chief Operating Officer, she is charged with the task of getting government documents online. Turning paper into bytes, she says, involves a whole lot of file format juggling. So we wanted

to know: what’s better — PDF or HTML?

TIG: How important has the Internet and electronic document delivery become to the Ontario government?

LS: It’s become very important. We currently offer somewhere in the neighbourhood of 70 per cent of our publications and documents over the Internet and that’s obviously only one of our distributions channels. We also have 70 Service Ontario kiosks across the province, where people can get information from a touch-screen in a shopping mall.

So when we talk about electronic information we don’t only talk about the Internet. Even in our physical facilities, when someone comes into one of our offices in their own community, we offer an Internet connection in the building so they can self-help.

Even if their Plan A was to walk in, we have electronic access to information.

TIG: How do you decide whether to distil a PDF file or put up an HTML document?

LS: There are accessibility issues with PDF files. A lot of information that the government distributes has to be accessible to the majority of people.

So we can’t discriminate either by using software that isn’t ubiquitous or by using versions of software that aren’t ubiquitous. So when we put information up on our Web site we test it with every possible browser we can imagine. And in some cases, HTML is the best way for us to do it. It’s simple for us, simple for everybody to read.

TIG: Where does PDF come into the picture?

LS: In some cases, what we’re putting up is actually a form someone’s going to print and fill out and in those cases, we have to be conscious of the fact that someone could easily take an HTML document and alter it.

For a government form we use mainly PDF format because the document isn’t editable once it’s in that format.

The other advantage obviously is that with PDF you don’t have to worry about what kind of printer the client is using; it’ll always come out the same way.

With a form that’s going to come back to us, it’s has to come out the same way either because we image it as it comes in or because it makes it easier for us to process. Then we definitely use PDF, but in quite a few cases we offer the same document in multiple formats.

TIG: I’ve even noticed Microsoft Word documents on some sites.

LS: In the early days of government Web sites the people accessing the Internet had a fairly technical background.

They understood what we meant by PDF, they understood that if they had to download a new version of Adobe Acrobat, they knew how to do that.

What we find today is more and more, the clients we’re dealing with have just recently got a computer.

They don’t really understand or are afraid to download software from anywhere. And so there’s some resistance to use PDF, whereas we find that Microsoft Word is fairly prevalent. But obviously, some people don’t use Word, they use Word Perfect.

We find we have to have, in some cases, multiple formats.

TIG: It sounds like you’re juggling a lot of formats.

LS: The Internet is just one of our distribution channels; we will look at how we package information that’s most simple for a particular channel.

And even the Internet is changing.

You know, we all think of the Internet as something you access through a 14- or 17-inch monitor, but we know people are using a cell phone with a two-inch screen to access information over the Internet, and we can’t expect someone reading something over a cell phone to go through a 200-page document. We need to be continually thinking about how we present the content in the way that’s most suited for the subject matter, for the audience, for whatever mechanisms they might be using to access it.

TIG: Will there be a time when all government documents will be available electronically, in some form, on the Internet?

LS: That’s obviously our goal. We’ve made some really big progress in the last year or so. For example, we launched an application called e-laws, where all of our legislation is now published electronically.

TIG: Are you building the paperless society?

LS: I don’t think so. The most that I would say is happening is that in some cases we’ve gone to using the Internet as a distribution channel for paper. It’s client’s paper, not the government’s paper.

But still, the majority of cases end up in hard copy. And part of that is really culture change and keeping pace with the technologies. In smaller businesses, for example, they are really much more comfortable having something on paper. That’s one of the areas where a formatted PDF document is really useful.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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