Public Data Principles: RSS Autodiscovery on Government Department Websites?

Looking over the UK Gov Transparency Board’s draft Public Data Principles, one of the suggested principles (#) proposes that:

Public data underlying the Government’s own websites will be published in reusable form for others to use – anything published on Government websites should be available as data for others to reuse. Public bodies should not require people to come to their websites to obtain information.

One example of how this might work is to look at the Direct Gov Syndication API, but there are maybe some simpler alternatives…? Like RSS…

So for example, over on Mash the State, Adrian Short had a go at hassling local councils into publishing RSS feeds by the end of 2009, although not many of them took up the challenge at the time… (maybe the new principles will nudge them towards doing this?) Here, for example, are some obvious starting points:
– council news (here’s an example council news feed from Shropshire Council);
– recent planning applications (here’s an example Planning RSS feed from Lichfield District Council);
– current roadworks (here’s an example traffic/roadworks feed from Glasgow City Council);
– council jobs (here’s an example council advertised jobs feed from Sutton Council);
– current consultations (here’s an example open consultations feed from Bristol City Council).

In accord with another of the draft Public Data principles (#),

Public data will be timely and fine grained – Data will be released as quickly as possible after its collection and in as fine a detail as is possible. Speed may mean that the first release may have inaccuracies; more accurate versions will be released when available.
Release data quickly, and then re-publish it in linked data form – Linked data standards allow the most powerful and easiest re-use of data. However most existing internal public sector data is not in linked data form. Rather than delay any release of the data, our recommendation is to release it ‘as is’ as soon as possible, and then work to convert it to a better format.

even if the published feeds could be better (e.g. planning feeds might benefit from geo-data that allow planning notices to be displayed at an appropriate location on a map), there’s no reason not to start opening up this “data” now in a way that supports syndication.

At a government departmental level, one of the things I’ve been interested in tracking previously has been government consultation announcements. It’s possible to search for these, and generate email alerts and RSS subscriptions, via Tell Them What You Think. A list of government department consultation websites can also be found on Direct Gov: list of Government consultation websites. (To make that list a little more portable, I popped it onto my doodlings area of WriteToReply; WTR: Government consultation websites; and courtesy of the magic of the theme we run there, it’s easy enough to get an RSS feed out with each department listed as a separate item (although rather than resolving to the consultation web page URLs, the feed links point back to the corresponding paragraph on Doodlings): some sort of feed of Government consultation websites.)

If each of those consultation websites published an autodiscoverable RSS feed containing the currently open consultations (and maybe even made that data available as a calendar feed as well, with consultation opening and closing dates specified), it would be simple for aggregating services like Tell Them What You Think, or announcement services like a Direct Gov “New Consultations” feature, to consume and re-present this information in an alternative context.

(Note that consultation websites should also be making consultation information available on consultation web pages in a machine readable way using RDFa. E.g. see @lesteph’s Adding RDFa to a consultation.)

Any changes to website design – changes that break the screenscraping routines used by many services like Tell Them What You Think – would be able to continue operating as long as the RSS feed URLs remained unchanged. (Of course, it might be that aggregating services parse the content of RSS feeds in particular ways to extract structured information from them, essentially scraping the feed contents, so in those cases, if the way feed content was presented were to change, the services would still break…)

Anyway, to return to the draft Public Data Principle I opened this post with, RSS (and related protocols such as Atom) can go a long way towards helping achieve the aim that “[p]ublic bodies should not require people to come to their websites to obtain information”.


1 thought on “Public Data Principles: RSS Autodiscovery on Government Department Websites?

  1. Andy

    Found this via Steph Gray’s site. Nice piece.

    RDFa makes complete sense, we’ve put our money where our mouth is in this respect:

    Also interestingly dealing with an RSS situation at the moment syndicating public contributions. We chose by design to show only moderated contributions – should emphasise this was our choice not a client request. It’s a tricky balance though; I’m concerned to be as open as possible within the limits of practicality around offensive content. Also the utility of the feeds for mashing up, analysis etc is then dependent on the speed of moderation, going faster has a cost / workload implication for moderators.

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