This is an article I've submitted to Computerworld NZ. I interviewed Ferry Hendrikx of the NZ E-Government Unit for this. Note that the target audience is mainstream IT people, so as well as writing about Ferry's experiences in E-Government I decided to also explain what RSS is and put it in the context of everyday IT. So here it is:
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RSS is an XML-based standard for syndication of news and other regularly-updated content. It is being widely adopted as a form of online publishing - The New York Times and Reuters are just two big-name publishers who now offer RSS "feeds". The New Zealand Government began using RSS feeds in 2003 to publish government news to the public. In July 2003 the New Zealand E-Government Unit released a document entitled "A standard for the publication of government news summaries", which outlined their vision for RSS in the New Zealand public sector. I interviewed the document's author Ferry Hendrikx, from the New Zealand E-Government Unit.
The document by Hendrikx proposed a 3-part RSS "component" for e-government, made up of:
- RSS news feeds - News Aggregation - A Syndication/Subscribe service
This is known as 'publish/subscribe' on the Web and it is one component of the New Zealand E-Government strategy.
The E-Government Strategy document published in 2001 declared that the Internet should be "the dominant means of enabling ready access to government information, services and processes" by June 2004. Hendrikx views the publish/subscribe model as "one of a number of ways of making information available" and confirms it is "one of our key goals". As to whether RSS is being used by the Government to distribute information both to the public and internally, Hendrikx asserts that "this model is equally useful for making information available for both public and internal consumption."
A Short History of RSS
The history of RSS comprises a number of competing and at times conflicting versions. It's also a matter of contention as to who invented RSS. Netscape were the first to release something called RSS - which at that time stood for "RDF Site Summary" and was designed for use in portals. It was labelled RSS 0.9 and came to light in March 1999. Netscape went on to release RSS 0.91 in July that same year, re-christening it "Rich Site Summary". This version included features from Dave Winer's <scriptingNews> format.
In December 2000, RSS 1.0 was released by an independent group of developers - it used RDF (Resource Description Framework) syntax and focused on modularity and extensibility. It had more in common with RSS 0.90 than RSS 0.91, which was one of the reasons the RSS world forked off into two different directions. Soon after Dave Winer released RSS 0.92, which was a simpler version of RSS that built on RSS 0.91. The most popular version of RSS today is RSS 2.0, which was released by Dave Winer's company Userland in September 2002.
E-Government selects RSS 1.0
When the New Zealand E-Government Unit came around to selecting which RSS format they would use at the end of 2002, they opted for RSS 1.0. Hendrikx explains how they came to that decision:
"We started researching news syndication in late 2002. It was clear to us that we needed an extensible way to add new information to our RSS feeds. The early RSS standards (0.9x) were not extensible. RSS 1.0 was chosen mostly because of its standards based approach and the use of XML namespaces. The fit of RSS 1.0 with DC (Dublin Core) also helped our decision."
In their implementation, the New Zealand E-Government Unit added the Dublin Core-based New Zealand Government Locator Service (NZGLS) metadata component, for government specific information. The NZGLS metadata standard is the official New Zealand Government standard for metadata. For example one of the NZGLS tags, <nzgls:type.agency>, specifies the Government agency for each item in the RSS feed.
Currently the New Zealand E-Government has about 20 agencies generating RSS feeds. These are collected and aggregated into two public RSS feeds, which can be found at http://news.portal.govt.nz/. Hendrikx says that "these two feeds differ only by the geographic cover of the content: one contains only country wide news, the other contains all news including regional."
Aggregation and Syndication
The document published in July 2003 focused on the first part of the e-government RSS component, RSS feeds. The next parts, aggregation and syndication, are actually in deployment already says Hendrikx.
"An aggregator was successfully prototyped last year. A production version is now running and produces the two RSS feeds mentioned previously. The output from the aggregator also drives the news content on the Govt.NZ portal (http://www.govt.nz/)."
Hendrikx says that details of the aggregation and syndication features will be published on the E-government site "at an appropriate time to link with upgrades to the portal".
Bringing RSS to The People
In the commercial world, RSS and syndication technologies are familiar to only a small percentage of people. Mainstream IT people have yet to buy into the Publish/Subscribe vision, so there is a need to educate people and evangalise the benefits of publishing in RSS. Hendrikx says that this is true of government agencies too.
"The concept and its benefits are not always immediately obvious and so we've spent time talking to agencies. Some agencies with the in-house technical capability were quick to adopt the system. Other agencies have joined up on a gradual basis as they developed an understanding of the benefits. One agency produced a forms-based client for us to help the smaller agencies generate their RSS content. In the longer term we may roll out a push based technology that allows interested agencies to push their RSS content to our server rather than having to publish RSS on their websites."
The E-Government is one of the early adopters of RSS in New Zealand. Non-government organisations are now starting to consider implementing RSS and syndication technologies too. Hendrikx advises "the advantage of RSS is that it makes content widely available. RSS is fairly easy to implement, as there are plenty of tools available to help you."
Commercial companies might not need the metadata rich feeds that RSS 1.0 enables. It's even easier to use RSS 2.0 to publish news and other regularly updated information. Companies may even want to consider engaging their customers in conversations, by publishing weblogs with RSS feeds. But whichever form of RSS you use, one thing's for sure - the world of RSS and syndication is re-defining how information is published and read on the Web.