Feed the Network
Agencies catch on to popular Web services standard
NOAA's Robert Bunge began experimenting with RSS as an additional way of getting weather information out to citizens.
The Defense Department was on to something when it came across a new way to send out press releases and contract announcements'an Extensible Markup Language flavor called RSS.
The Census Bureau also uses RSS to publish links to its surveys, and the National Weather Service is trying out RSS to disseminate weather reports and alerts.
No surprise, really. RSS has been wildly popular within the Internet community for a few years, particularly among periodical publishers and the weblog community. But now, agencies are discovering that RSS can be a low-cost, low-hassle way of getting information out to a variety of audiences.
Developed by Netscape Communications Corp., RSS was originally known as Rich Site Summary. It now stands for Really Simple Syndication, but no one calls it anything other than RSS. Webmasters have used it to alert Internet surfers and other Web sites to news stories, weblog entries or other recently posted items.
'News feeds are applicable for any content that is updated frequently, like news releases, weather reports, product announcements, some data items and schedule information,' said Lisa Wolfisch, a computer specialist at the Census Bureau. Wolfisch recently gave an introductory talk on RSS at the Collaborative Expedition Workshop, held by the National Science Foundation in conjunction with the Federal CIO Council's XML Working Group.
The Census Bureau, which already uses RSS to alert users about surveys, will start offering its own news service, the Census Product Update, via RSS. Now, users interested in updates from the Census Bureau have to subscribe to a mailing list or visit its Web page.
Perhaps more importantly, RSS gives agencies an easy entry into the still-emerging world of service-oriented architectures. 'In this sense, news feeds are a very basic form of Web service,' Wolfisch said.
RSS 'allowed us to explore XML-type services,' said Robert Bunge, Internet dissemination expert for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is testing the technology.How to RSS
NOAA's mission is to provide weather information to the public, both directly and through commercial news organizations. To get the word out, it employs as many different conduits as possible'satellite feeds, radio, the emergency alert system and dedicated servers. When Bunge learned about RSS, it seemed like another good conduit to him. So his office started beta testing an RSS feed for current observations and weather alerts.
The RSS feed itself is nothing more than a simple text file located on the organization's Web server, one with an .xml or .rss extension. With XML-formatted tags, the page will contain the title of the RSS feed, perhaps an image or description, and a list of links and titles to items on the Web site, sometimes with descriptions.
'RSS feeds behave much like HTML files; they sit there waiting for someone to access them,' said Terry Davis, manager of the Office of the Secretary of Defense's public Web program, which also employs an RSS feed. 'No additional special software or hardware [was] required.'
To set up NOAA's RSS feed, Bunge's office wrote a script that searches NOAA's MySQL database of alerts and formats any new information for the RSS feed. A Unix cron scheduler, which is a utility administrators can use to automatically run programs at preselected intervals, triggers the script every few minutes.
The Education Department has an even simpler approach. It runs an RSS feed to send out press releases, funding opportunities and learning resources. Right now, RSS links are composed entirely by hand in a simple text editor, using a template, according to Keith Stubbs, an Internet project manager for the agency.
Education's RSS page receives about 66,000 hits a month, said Kirk Winters, an agency Web editor.Spreading the word
After creating the feed, an agency can let users know it is available by simply placing an XML or RSS icon on a frequently visited page that links to the RSS page. Webmasters can also submit the link to an RSS directory, such as Syndic8 at www.syndic8.com
RSS comes in a number of different competing standards, which can sometimes present a challenge.
'It is a confusing picture with all the contradictory standards,' Stubbs said
Netscape's initial version 0.91, along with the enhanced 0.92 version, offers a basic taxonomic structure for encoding feed items, as well as parameters for how often readers should check the feed page.
RSS Version 1 offers access to additional modules to describe the data as well as extensibility to write your own modules. It also supports the Resource Descriptive Framework standard, which allows ambitious webmasters to specify the relationships among different elements in the feed. The most recent version of RSS, version 2, jettisons the complicated RDF but keeps the additional modules.
After careful consideration, Stubbs' office decided to use a variation of version 2.0.
'We just wanted to keep it simple, so it works with as many RSS readers as possible,' Stubbs said.
At Defense, the RSS feed performs a service similar to that of bulk e-mail lists, plus it offers some advantages of its own, Davis said. For instance, he said, RSS feeds are harder to tamper with than mailing lists.
In addition, RSS feeds are often more straightforward. Defense needs to send e-mails in two different formats'one in plain text, the other in HTML. But with RSS, there's only a plain-text format. Moreover the costs for setting up bulk e-mail service can be high, while starting an RSS feed is as easy as placing a file on a Web server.
'It was relatively inexpensive to provide this additional distribution option to our customers,' Davis said. It took Defense about 80 hours to establish a plan for using RSS, design the templates, implement the code for interfacing with the office's content management application, and get the operation up and running. Now the feed gets about 70,000 hits a month, which Davis estimates are generated by approximately 2,900 regular users. Davis envisions producing feeds for news photos, schedules for television and radio broadcasts, and other material.
Even if they don't set up news feeds themselves, employees can use RSS feeds to as-similate information from other agencies and news sources. Users can tap into RSS feeds through an extension of a Web browser or through a stand-alone RSS newsreader (see box below).
A Section 508 coordinator could regularly tap into related feeds, Wolfisch said. 'The coordinator would not have to spend time accessing these sources individually, perhaps missing some useful item on new technology or best practices if a site was overlooked.'
For end users, RSS offers an advantage over e-mail, where a newsletter can be lost in the sea of spam. A visit to a Web page often brings annoying pop-up windows and unnecessary stories. RSS offers a quick way to take in a large number of stories without such ag-gravations, Wolfisch said.
RSS feeds can also be incorporated into other Web pages. A server can download an RSS feed at intervals and parse and format it for its own Web pages. Some NOAA material is reused this way.
'There have been a number of cities and local governments that have taken the watch warning feed and used it to populate a page on their local Web sites,' Bunge said, pointing to the Web page for Providence, R.I., as an example.