W3C investigates possible e-Gov standards

The World Wide Web Consortium has started an effort to develop standards that governments could use to harness Web 2.0 and social networking technologies.

It used to be that a government agency's outreach department only had to worry about posting information on that agency's Web site. Now, that department has a variety of conduits it could use — ranging from Twitter.com, YouTube.com and Facebook.com to mobile phones. To this end, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has started to develop the process of developing a set of standards that governments could use for harnessing these Web 2.0 and social networking technologies.

As a first step, the W3C eGovernment Interest Group (eGov IG) is developing a draft paper, titled "Improving Access to Government through Better Use of the Web," that describes the difficulties that agencies now face with using the Web. It is the first step in developing a set of standards that may help agencies execute Web-based multi-channel delivery more effectively, said eGov IG co-chairman Kevin Novak.

The W3C is the organizational body that oversees the standards and guidelines for the World Wide Web.

The paper is not supposed to offer solutions, but rather characterize the issues that the governments are facing so that standards could be developed if needed, Novak said. The paper is currently available open for comment. "We're hoping to get more participation in what the final [paper] will look like," Novak said. The group expects to post the paper in its final form by mid-May.

To get more feedback, eGov IG held a workshop in Washington last month to review the issues in the paper. At the meeting, attended by both government and private-sector personnel, talk centered around a number of reoccurring issues: To what the extent could commercial services, such as Flickr, be relied on? What were the repercussions of government officials using services such as Twitter to communicate? And, keeping with federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra's call for open government data, how could agencies expose their data in ways that would make it useful for others?

Standards will be necessary for government to succeed in the world of Web 2.0, Novak said. Someone at the workshop noted that the Web sites of most of the Cabinet-level agencies would not pass validation tests for proper use of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). This is problematic, Novak noted, because if the material is marked up correctly, it can then be re-used by additional channels such as Facebook.

"You are actually compromising the information because it is not in a format or structure that allows it to be proliferated everywhere in needs to be in a way it should," he told GCN.

The draft paper ranges in scope from discussing how government employees may interact with the citizenry through Web 2.0 technologies to more technical considerations such as multichannel delivery, interoperability among agencies and how data can be shared with the public. The draft also has a collection of use-cases, including a number that involve social networking technologies.

Although the W3C has not traditionally been involved in specific subgroups of Web users, the standards body thought it was important to address government domain. "We started this last year with the recognition that governments had a multitude of unique needs that weren't been addressed in the existing standards space. [We wanted to address] what were the best approaches for them to get their services out to their citizens" Novak said.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the basic Web protocols, has urged government agencies in a recent talk to open data for greater use, not only for the sake of transparency, but for greater use by outside parties.

He noted that all too often government employees "are very sensitive to keeping data. You're hugging your database, you don't want to let it go until you make a beautiful web site for it … I'd like to suggest to give us the unadulterated data," he said.

The draft defines the concept "open government data," or data that is published in "open raw formats and ways that make it accessible to all and allow reuse, such as the creation of data mashups (mashups defined as merging data from two or more different applications or data sources and producing comparative views of the combined information)." It suggests a number of technical approaches that agencies can make their data more available, such as:

  • Publish it in RDFa, a specification for attributes to express structured data in any markup language.
  • Publishing application programming interfaces (APIs), the instructions on how an outside program can access data directly.
  • Use really Simple Syndication (RSS) and Atom newsfeeds for content that is routinely posted to the Web, such as job listings.
  • Deploy the Representational State Transfer (REST), a protocol used by web services-based systems to access data and functionality.
  • Consider using the semantic technologies such as the Resource Description Framework and the Semantic Web Query Language that can use data more usable by encoding the data with additional contextual information that could be used by other systems to reason about the data.

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