I recently read an interesting article in The Guardian, on how the PDF file format was hurting democracy. I know what you’re thinking. I had the exact same reaction: what?!
To sum up the article, the author refers to a study which states that public reports made available as PDFs are very rarely downloaded, if at all. He attributes this to the idea that “owing to the way such documents are rendered, PDFs often give up machine readability in favour of human readability. The basic format doesn't include any requirement that text be selectable or searchable, while data presented as charts and tables is often impossible to export in any useable way.”
Clearly, this reporter hasn’t yet heard of Advanced Rendering, and sadly he’s not the only one with antiquated assumptions.
Not all PDFs are created equal
You’ve heard me say this before, and I’ll say it again: Not all PDFs are created equal. Sure, there are those basic PDFs that this article refers to, which aren’t text selectable or searchable, and from which data cannot be extracted in any usable way. Those basic PDFs are also low-resolution, blurry and often distort images and fonts, so what you’re left with is something quite different from the original. If that’s what I had to look at, I probably wouldn’t download it either.
PDF – the next generation
PDFs which are created using basic conversion software differ quite greatly from PDFs created using Advanced Rendering software. This kind of conversion includes a lot of bells and whistles, but most importantly, it helps make data and information usable, and borrowing the articles terms, makes the PDF machine readable in addition to human readable.
PDFs created using Advanced Rendering include a number of features:
- Text is made selectable and searchable using enhanced Optical Character Recognition technology
- Files are exact high-fidelity replicas of the original
- Navigation tools such as tables of contents, bookmarks and page numbers are automated and consistent
- Security features such as digital signatures and Confidential watermarks can be easily applied
- Metadata from the original files can be leveraged and added to the rendered PDF
Clearly PDFs aren’t hurting democracy, but they shouldn’t be the scapegoat for poor document management and citizen engagement. It’s not the technology; it’s how you implement it.