Jimmy Leach, Head of Digital Diplomacy at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office blogged earlier about a quiet little project his team have rolled out, using extended RSS 2.0 feeds to provide access to the FCO’s travel advice data.
As he says, the key thing for publicly-funded organisations is to get the information out there, which is why the corporate platform, and even corporate social media channels, are just the beginning. RSS feeds are a tried-and-tested technique for ensuring content can reach a wider audience:
Anyone can follow the latest alerts and changes using our travel advice RSS feeds in a standard reader like Google Reader or Netvibes. But you can consider this a call to developers to use our feeds as they want, to make our data useful, to add relevant information, to create visualisations, mobile apps or map-based viewers, incorporating extra machine-readable data about locations, contact details, reviews, ticket booking, all sorts of information and services that you wouldn’t expect a government department to provide, and, hopefully, pulled together in clever and innovative ways that you wouldn’t expect from a civil servant.
The existing travel advice feed on the site contains the alerts, the advice, the news and the embassy details all rolled into one. It does the job. It’s useful and relevant but it is also blunt and we know there are ways we can do it better.
We have started the ball rolling by creating some test feeds containing additional custom elements, so that each element in the feed is generated from a single field from our database of travel advice.
Inspired by Matthew Somerville’s use of iUI to fake an iPhone look and feel to his Train Times application, I’ve put together a little demo of how the FCO’s new feeds might be repurposed, with a little app optimised for iPhones which takes the latest alerts, visualises them on a map, and enables you to get the phone number and opening times for an embassy if you need it. It’s a fairly silly little proof of concept, but hopefully it shows that RSS feeds don’t just have to live in newsreaders. And it’s what Andrea DiMaio has decreed.
The bigger point here is about open data and cost. Most enterprise CMSes can generate RSS feeds, and it’s a technology that almost all developers and webbies feel comfortable with. So without the cost and complexity of building and mantaining a full API to their database, a corporate public sector organisation has been able to support reuse in a quick and simple way. Jimmy has asked for thoughts from developers and others on how the feeds might be cleaned up and made more useful, so do give him your ideas.