For e-gov, feds turn to reliable tool
- By Vandana Sinha
- Apr 24, 2003
PDF plays a stealthy but star role
NARA's Mark Giguere says federal users have insisted on naming PDF as an acceptable format for archiving documents.
E-government got its start with electronic documents, which is why Adobe Portable Document Format has blossomed in government use in a big'if fairly quiet'way.
The public today can view about 2 million PDF documents on .gov sites, according to Adobe Systems Inc., which developed the Acrobat PDF tool almost a decade ago.
Acrobat renders many file types'from word processing to computer-aided design, graphics and tabular material'into a read-only form that preserves their appearance across disparate computer systems.
It's a de facto federal standard. Agencies such as the IRS, the General Accounting Office, the State Department and even the White House have used PDF for years to prevent accidental or intentional alteration of official documents.
Newer PDF versions also let the public download and fill in forms online, or help workers mark up and revise collaborative reports. And PDF has complied with Section 508 accessibility requirements in recent years.
About half of federal bankruptcy court records are logged into an online database that accepts only PDF files. The IRS, which has chosen the file format for its Common Operating Environment Initiative, counted 282 million PDF tax forms downloaded between January and March this year'a third more than last tax season.
Last month, the National Archives and Records Administration expanded its list of acceptable permanent electronic document formats to include PDF.
Government users 'articulated that as a priority,' said Mark Giguere, NARA's chief of IT policy, planning and electronic records management. 'Agencies make decisions about which formats work for them based on their business needs. We on the back end just have to deal with what agencies create.'
NARA doesn't endorse one electronic form over another, Giguere said, and it might not even retain all PDF electronic submissions in that form. But NARA did pay attention to the loud backing for the format.
'A lot of people were underground about it,' said Stephen Levenson, judiciary policy records officer at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. 'They weren't publicizing their use because it wasn't an acceptable form.'
PDF grew up in the early 1990s as a way to transfer documents between computers without changing their look and layout. It also could post documents more legibly than HTML, which was immature at the time. PDF set itself apart by preserving the fonts, images, graphics and layout of any source document, regardless of platform. Low-cost option
The free Acrobat Reader toppled financial barriers to PDF adoption'for agencies posting documents and for citizens reading them.
That compatibility gradually began to favor PDF over word processor formats, even for editing and modifying documents. The government, whose software application portfolio runs across the spectrum, found PDF interoperability a key to effective communications.
The government 'has been a real Wild West for word processing programs,' Levenson said. 'There are formats that don't exist anymore. There's Linux in government. There's Unix in government. There are various forms of Microsoft Windows. PDF is the first one that crossed all those boundaries.'
The diversity of competing word processors, and their multiple versions, raised the risk that an official document would change in look or content every time it changed electronic hands.
'When you talk about document integrity, the only document format that holds to it is PDF,' said Paul Showalter, senior technical specialist in the IRS' Publishing Division. 'If you say something is on Page 82, it should be on Page 82.'
The government's reliance on PDF has spawned dozens of new applications that do everything from speeding PDF downloads and appending comments to PDF drafts to receiving digital signatures and redacting selected portions of PDF documents.
Many new products are server-based, 'which gives you an indication of how much the market has grown,' said Virginia Gavin, president of Appligent Inc. of Lansdowne, Pa. The government's 'got a larger quantity of PDF documents than they had five years ago.'Filling a void
ActivePDF Inc. of Mission Viejo, Calif., has rung up almost 20 percent more government purchases of its server-side PDF tools in the past year, and company officials said business is still on the rise. They credited the Government Paperwork Elimination Act and the administration's e-government and electronic-records management initiatives, combined with the strapped federal budget.
'More and more, you're going to see PDF manipulation come into play,' said Gina O'Reilly, activePDF marketing manager. 'There are a whole bunch of opportunities waiting to be developed there, saving time and money by having people fill out and submit forms online.'