Sunday, July 04, 2004

More on being only one

A couple of interesting comments were posted recently on my theory of one, I thought I'd promote their points to the main blog to make it easier to cover them. I'm delighted, though, that people are taking the time to comment - it helps me think through the issues and figure out the right things to do next. Paul Miller suggests "Create [info] on cold weather payments, say, once, display it n times; on DirectGov, on my local authority's site, and on yours, on the Citizen's Advice site, etc." and Ben says "the energy put into trying to stop the proliferation of brochure websites would be better spent on reaching the goal of 1 in another way - by making it possible for me to bring all my transactions with the Government into a single place" To Paul's point first, this is a kind of "super syndication" model where definitive content is clearly marked (wherever it is, and that need not be in a government domain) and then "borrowed" by a site when it needs it. I've been on this page for a while, in November 2002 for instance, I wrote: "I want to know if I can use RSS to pull up "definitive" content from another site - say I want to find out exactly what "Disability Living Allowance" is, could I use RSS with some parameter or other to a "definitions site" to get the right words? Could I also extend that to delivering personalised content, based on a few keywords, from sites around government in a single consistent thread - i.e. not just links or teasers but the whole text presented in a seamless way? I still don't know that it's practical. I don't know how anything would be labelled as definitive and, for that matter, what would stop 2, 20 or 2000 people claiming to be "definitive". I don't know how you look up content based on Metadata and how you ensure that it's consistent in voice and tone with the text the surrounds it. In short, I think it sounds great, but I don't for a second think it will work with this level of technology. RSS is about the last 10 posts, the last 10 newsfeeds or the last 10 things I think the world should know about. A while ago we conjured up the idea of an XML database that would return content to the query source based on tags, but we couldn't find a way to make it work - not least because everyone out there would have to subscribe to our standards, unless someone else conjured up the standards first (and government is the last place that should be writing content sharing standards for the web). If I've got this all wrong and it is, in fact, very do-able, I'd love to know about it. To Ben's point, I think directgov will ultimately be the place to get all your transactions into a single place; not this month, not even this year but one day. It won't necessarily mean that there is no Inland Revenue tax site anymore or that DVLA's driving test site disappears from view, but it will mean that transactions are easier to find, less onerous to complete (relying instead on historical data, shared data or stored data) and perhaps that they're more proactive (i.e. government comes and finds you with a service rather than waiting for you to find it). But bringing the transactions together is probably harder than bringing the content together, so don't hold your breath.

2 comments:

  1. Like you, I'm not sure that RSS is the answer to this particular problem; although it certainly does have a role to play in alerting-type services. Whilst you might not use RSS to find out about cold weather payments, you might (one day!) use RSS to be alerted that such a payment has been triggered by last night's temperature.

    It is undeniably true that there may be issues with any number of individuals declaring themselves to be definitve. To a degree, you might almost have to let the market decide who they trusted. Yes, a particular Whitehall Department might be the definitive source, but Citizen's Advice or East Riding of Yorkshire Council might produce more citizen-friendly information, so I might opt to be informed by them instead.

    So, there are human issues about trust, authority, and potentially conflicting information.

    On the technical side, a range of technologies offer parts of the answer, assuming that a lot of this information exists in systems somewhere, and can be appropriately disaggregated or otherwise unbundled. Things like OAI, assorted Web Services (WSRP, etc), SRW, Topic Maps and RDF are capable of helping here in terms of disclosing fragments of content or services for harvesting, embedding, or otherwise reusing elsewhere.

    Possibly the biggest problem is that, currently, we insist on building end-end services comprising the interface, the content, and all the interactions. Duplication is therefore inevitable, and the poor end user is extremely badly served, as they end up having to go to a lot of places. Better, surely, to work towards disclosing our existing content and services, so that they can be picked up and reused in various ways within other presentation services.

    Existing technologies don't provide all the answers, by any means. Pursuing them, and their like, seems a more sustainable long-term proposition than continuing to fund and build endless one-stop-shops, all relying upon their own little pool of proprietary content (and, having just re-read that, I should state it is not a dig at Direct.Gov, which strikes me as a significant step forward).

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  2. I'm not sure I agree on your use of the word "definitive". Liking to be informed by East Riding Council or the CAB is not the same as them being the definitive source. My worry with 16,900 references on Google to "Disability Living Allowance" is that the risk of any one of them being wrong is high - but I might like the turn of phrase each of them use. Still, what we're both talking about is the complexity of creating open and accessible standards that probably go beyond the way browsers normally work to present a broad array of personally relevant information. But first, we have to figure out what the right information is, then get it in a format that is presentable and then get people to adopt that format. Sounds fun. Next ....

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