Agencies get pushy with Web 2.0

Web widget defined

A portable chunk of code that users can install and execute within any separate HTML-based Web page without requiring additional compilation.

Source: Wikipedia

Having an effective presence on the Web is no longer as simple as putting up a home page and letting visitors do all the work to come to you. Many organizations now enhance their Web-based communications with various techniques to push news and fresh information out to interested recipients or seed links to the updates in places people frequent online.

Many government agencies have been dabbling with these Web 2.0 tools for some simple tasks, such as sending occasional press releases. Now, taking a cue from some pioneering private-sector firms and a thriving interactive Web community, some agencies are looking at the tools as a way to conduct more frequent, and at times more critical, information exchanges with other agencies and groups and individuals outside government.

One of the most basic and important of these new tools is called Really Simple Syndication.  It’s a way of formatting Web content using Extensible Markup Language so it can be read and used by many different programs. RSS reader or aggregator software can automatically grab this content from many Web sites and display it so users don’t have to go to each site to view it.

The Homeland Security Department is using RSS feeds from a number of its agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to automatically provide current information about floods, storms and other threats on its Disaster Help site.

“Another area we have been looking at is using RSS with widgets,” said Gwynne Kostin, director of Web communications at DHS. “It doesn’t take much for us to take an RSS feed and put it into a widget so that others can embed that into their own Web sites.”

Widgets are snippets of HTML code that are inserted into the programming that organizations use to build their Web sites. Those widgets then bring live content from home sites to the Web page that hosts the widget. One popular widget allows YouTube videos to be displayed on Web sites outside the YouTube site.

By itself, RSS is not the most interesting application, but it becomes powerful when combined with other functionality such as widgets, Kostin said.

Knowledge about RSS in government is becoming more widespread, said Bev Godwin, director of USA.gov and Web best practices at the General Services Administration, but it’s still not completely understood.

“The conversation still goes anywhere from ‘What the heck is RSS?’ to ‘Why haven’t we heard of this before?’ ” she said.
Godwin is an active promoter of agencies’ use of RSS and other interactive Web tools. USA.gov uses RSS liberally in its communications and hosts a library of government RSS feeds.

Godwin said she expects basic RSS applications in government to proliferate now that the tools to build them have become more standardized and simpler to use. That should eventually lead to successful efforts involving more complex information exchanges.

“As for using them to aggregate context across agencies, there’s certainly a little of that going on now, but I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface…so far,” Godwin said.

NASA’s exploration of Web 2.0
NASA was one of the first government agencies to stake out a presence on the Web, hosting pages as long ago as 1991, when the first HTML browser became operational. It also has used RSS for issuing press releases and other content on its primary Web sites.

NASA was one of the first agencies to start using social-bookmark tools, such as Digg and del.icio.us, to distribute content to targeted audiences. If users find a Web page or piece of content they like, they can cl ick a button on that pa ge to add it to a list that appears on the Digg or del.icio.us
social-bookmarking sites. In that way, popular content can be distributed among a large number of people with no extra effort by the content’s originator.

One of the lessons NASA officials have learned about these Web 2.0 tools is that they are not ends in themselves.

“We’ve recently had to…figure out the best way to use these tools because otherwise the effect can be very fragmented,” said Brian Dunbar, NASA’s Internet services manager. Their use “has to go from pilot to production in a strategic way, and we have to understand the technical issues involved, how to integrate with other things we are doing, what access restrictions are needed and so on.”

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also believe these tools should be part of a comprehensive communications strategy.

CDC officials started using RSS for some updates because of demands from people who wanted CDC feeds for their readers, said Fred Smith, a senior technologist in CDC’s eHealth marketing division. But as RSS’ popularity grew, the agency began integrating RSS into more popular topics such as Travelers’ Health.

“From there, we’ve graduated to using RSS as a standard format for building other [communications] tools, such as for passing data to widgets we are developing and as a way to exchange data with other agencies, particularly in times of crisis such as pandemics,” he said.

Smith said he also believes the new tools make it easier to reach data exchange agreements with other agencies. RSS is seen as a known, easy-to-use standard, he said, unlike Electronic Data Interchange, which often requires more extensive interagency agreements.

But like their peers at NASA, CDC officials said the tools are most effective when used judiciously and with clear goals in mind.

“An important part of CDC research is aimed at how people use these tools,” said Erin Edgerton, CDC’s content lead for interactive and new media. “We have to look at the target audience and what experience they’ve had before with them and what the best practices are in applying these tools to that.”

For example, there is much interest in using cell phones and other mobile devices for complex communications and notifications, but CDC officials are waiting for those tools to mature more before plunging in, Edgerton said.

Not everyone is convinced that RSS and other such tools have any great use. The Veterans Health Administration has been using RSS feeds for press releases and to announce its medal of honor winners for some time, but there has been little interest in using them for other applications, said Joyce Bounds, VHA’s director of Web services.

“We’re just not finding a need for that at this time,” she said. “There are a fair amount [of links] behind the firewall, and program offices and medical centers can subscribe if they want to, but no one has used them so far.”

However, with VHA focusing more on expanding its outside presence on the Internet, Bounds expects it will start using these tools at some point. But it will take a change in mind-set because content will probably need to be repurposed depending on the audience and the channels used, she said.

Even for NASA officials, firm believers in the power of the Internet, Web 2.0 and its associated tools have not yet lived up to their hype.

The real breakthrough was when the six-wheeled Mars Pathfinder landed and its rovings were shown live on the Web, Dunbar said. After that, people were no longer content with just seeing a picture in a newspaper, and they began clamoring for live images.

“We’ve not hit anything in Web 2.0 yet that equals the impact of We 1.0,” he said.
That will happen when Web 2.0 tools give agencies a genuine ability to interact with people, Dunbar said. If there’s a revolution in communications that links agencies to people directly, that’s when Web 2.0 will catch on.

“But we’re not there yet.”

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