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Open Standards

What’s the problem?

As researchers, we spend interminable hours collecting the raw materials for our work – data (qualitiative data that is). Many of us then proceed to spend still further interminable hours coding that data into one of the several Qualitative Data Analysis (QDA) computer applications. In the process we create more data – lots of it. At that point, most of us effectively hand over the keys to that data to the owners of those applications. That is, we authorise the application to be the only means of accessing the data. This is a problem because:

  1. If the software is proprietary (as the most widely-used applications are) and we (or our institution) cease paying the licence fee then we lose all access to our data. We cannot access the data that we invested huge amounts of time in at all.

  2. We cannot manipulate our data (let me repeat that: our data) other than in the ways that the application allows us to.

What’s the answer?

Open standards.

What’s that?

Rather than locking up the data (our data) in files whose format is kept secret so that it can only be read by the application that created it, applications should use a standard file format. This would permit other applications, or even individual researchers, to access and manipulate the data.

Doesn’t that destroy the applications’ raison d’être?

Not at all. QDA applications add enormous value to the data by providing easy-to-use and powerful user interfaces to make entering and editing data as painless as possible, and tools to extract useful information from that data. These contributions are what we pay them – and will continue to pay them – for.

Are there precedents?

Are you kidding? Thirty years ago you it was difficult to move the simplest piece of text from one computer system to another. Now we take for granted the ability to copy and paste not only formatted text, but images, sound, video and just about anything else you can think of. The time has come for QDA data to be accessible in the same way.

If you’re interested at existing open file formats, take a look at here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_format#Examples_of_open_formats.

You said only ‘most’ applications are proprietary. What about the others?

There are a few Open source QDA applications

What is the current state of play?

Other than existing Open source QDA applications, there are a few projects that could serve as gateways to open standards for QDA:

  • The Open Annotation Collaboration aims to create open standards for annotating material on the web. This objective has a lot in common with one of the most basic functions of most QDA software: coding.

  • Zotero is a well-established and powerful source management tool, and well-placed to serve as a launching pad for open QDA standards.