Saturday, June 12, 2010

Distributing Government Content

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In 2002, the team I worked with in UK Government (the e-Delivery team, in the Cabinet Office) pitched to HM Treasury for an allocation of funds for delivery a content management solution that would have the potential to be used all across Government. This eventually became DotP (variously short for Dot Productisation - i.e. the ability to reuse it - or Delivering On the Promise, depending on who was making it up at the time).

We suggested to HMT that we might be able to do lots of different things given the chance, many of which were not being done in UK government. Trawling through the bid document today, I alighted on this paragraph:

1) Rich Site Summary (RSS)/SOAP.This will allow content to be pushed to other parties/sites when it’s published and pulled from our content repository by commercial and partner sites and incorporated directly into their web pages. This will enable full content syndication. A partnership with intermediaries is a critical step in achieving the levels of ‘take-up’ of Government services on line expected by the modernising Government targets.

Why is this interesting?

Well, because as Simon Dickson tells us, direct.gov.uk now has a content syndication API. We didn't pull it off back in 2002, or any time after that. There were several good reasons and perhaps some less than good including a lack of obvious customers, a lack of demand from the UK citizen to present content in such a manner, a lack of funds (our bid was supported but with something like half what we had asked for, and we had a long do list). I suspect the real reason, though, was that we didn't have the faintest idea how to do it (and whilst we had alighted on RSS as a possible way, I don't think it would have worked - we couldn't figure out how someone would ask for a given piece of content and then get it back nor how we would deal with updates and how format or length changes might look if someone else presented our content). I think we always thought it was going to be a necessary capability and so I'm really impressed that the dg team have pulled it off - and I hope that they're seeing real demand for it.

Direct.gov have published a guide for how to use the syndication capability which looks pretty straight forward - my guess is that if you're in the market for syndicating government content then you either are already technically literate enough to do it or you have people working for you who are.

By the by, I note that NHS Choices has a similar syndication capability. Well done to all those working on these two sites:

At the end of that quote from Gordon Brown in the captured picture above it says DG now has 25 million visits a month. Hopefully, given the new administration's approach to data transparency, they won't mind me publishing this graph:


201006122310.jpg These are the figures for ukonline and direct.gov in the month when we switched from one to the other, May 2004. Six years ago, then, ukonline was seeing perhaps 500-600,000 unique users a month and 700-900,000 visits.

72 months later, volume is up around 40 fold. 25 million visits a month!

That's really quite stunning. At the time the resistance to the continued idea of a single (central) government website was strong, everyone (including me) had an opinion that they wanted to share on how it should work that was often different from the chosen direction - and almost everyone hated the distinct orange colour palette that was chosen (it grew on me in a surprisingly short time I believe).

At the time, another site that we hosted on the same infrastructure, dh.gov.uk, was seeing well over a million visits a month. We often wondered how quickly direct.gov would overtake dh.

I have fond memories of our vision slide that laid out what we wanted to accomplish. Here's a version from early 2002:

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"tag and grab" - it has a nice ring to it. Perhaps nicer than "syndication API"! The keen eyed will see the 3rd iteration of the ukonline.gov.uk home page in that slide.

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