Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

If You Can't Say Anything Constructive...

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Something I’ve noticed a lot recently, amongst the IT/Open Source crowd (not specifically geospatial), is the inability to answer a question in a constructive manner, if it can be answered in a “well you shouldn’t use that piece of software” kind of way. This drives me to utter distraction, as it’s not only pretty useless to the person asking the question, if they actually have a problem that they want to resolve, but it also creates a really bad impression.

Example 1- I have recently been investigating how to convert from Open Office Base files to Microsoft Access. The standard answers have ranged from “well get the other person to install open office”, to “why would you want to do that, freak!”. Now, consider the motivation of the person asking the question. They have already decided to give Open Office a try, but are aware that (shock!) not everyone uses it. They don’t want to cause trouble for their colleagues, and perhaps they don’t want to give the impression that Open Office Base is in some way limited. So- how useful is it to get the answers above?

Example 2- We often get questions about how to convert from some totally random file (usually a docx) that someone has received in their email, to something our staff can actually use. Standard answers have been “well, don’t use Microsoft Office 2007 in the first place”, to “tell the client to send you the file in a different format”. Again, consider the motivation. Our staff member is stuck with a file that they need to do their job, in a format that they can’t read. Potentially they can’t do their job until the file is converted. In this case, I can see the merit in trying to persuade the staff member and/or client to think about the formats that they send files in, but on the other hand, it’s a bit like one of the Harry Enfield characters, and doesn’t help them with their immediate problem in the slightest.

I appreciate that often the motivation behind these comments is a genuine desire to get people to use interoperable software, and a frustration that people don’t always do this. However, is it too far-fetched to think that you might help your cause more if you are helpful and constructive? To paraphrase my nan (and probably every one else’s too): If you can’t say anything constructive, don’t say anything at all…

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