Internaut: What's RSS? And should agencies syndicate their data?

Shawn P. McCarthy

Have you considered syndicating the online information your government office collects?

That might sound like a strange question to agency Web managers who aren't in the business of distributing news or establishing a brand. But they can use the same methods as news services and software publishers to channel their databases to multiple Web sites, sharing their government data and becoming authoritative Web resources.

Syndication happens via so-called bricklets, or customizable chunks of a Web page. You've interacted with bricklets if you've ever used one of the personal start pages offered by leading Web portals.

A news bricklet typically displays several headlines and lets you click through to full stories and other news sections. A weather bricklet displays the forecast for your ZIP code. Other bricklets might give a top-level view of a database, from sports scores to product directories. A highly interactive page will have up to a dozen bricklets.

Most bricklets are created with style sheets and imported Extensible Markup Language code. The concept has been around for a couple of years on large commercial sites and is gaining popularity as more organizations make the leap to XML content management.

The protocol used for most syndication efforts is RSS.

No two people agree on what RSS stands for'maybe Really Simple Syndication, Rich Syndication Standard or one of several other definitions.

According to the RSS FAQ at www.voidstar.com/node.php?id=129, RSS was designed as a simple way of distributing headlines. Other types of data can be published the same way.

For example, agencies might publish the titles of their latest reports, white papers or other data sources at a location where they can be picked up by automated processes of other Web sites. The headlines might appear as is, or they might undergo editing at the other sites.

A headline can connect back to a central document, or the document itself can be picked up just like the headline. Because headlines and documents all are chunks of XML code, the sites that pick them up can display them according to their particular style sheets.

Editable bricklets give flexibility in displaying the headlines from an RSS feed. This is controlled by the server displaying the page, not by the RSS feed.

Each visitor receives a cookie whose selections are recognized and updated in subsequent visits.

Note: Government use of cookies has certain proscriptions, so a site's privacy policy must describe such use carefully.

RSS syndication projects make sense because of the volume of data that government agencies need to share with each other.

Syndication could let any agency tap into any other agency's published titles and resources.

For example, federal announcements and press releases could be published in real time to a news directory on FirstGov.gov. There, an editor could select the day's or hour's top announcements for a headlines bricklet on the main page, channeling less important stories to a news directory.

Here are some RSS resources:
Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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