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Mash the Irish State

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Adrian Short launched an initiative a few weeks ago to encourage UK government and public sector organisations to make their data available to the general public. The first phase of the project – called Mash the State – is seeking to get all ‘UK local councils to serve up a news RSS feed from their website by Christmas 2009’.

RSS feeds allow for website updates to be pushed out to subscribers. This negates the requirement for visitors to return to a site checking for updates. Liz Ainaz and USA.gov outline a collection reasons why government institutions should have RSS feeds. These include:

  • RSS feeds are an efficient way for web users to keep up-to-date with news that interests them
  • They provide a means for pushing information to users on their terms and based on their access medium e.g. RSS readers
  • Adopting new communications channels leads to better communication with the public and greater awareness of government information
  • Allows government agencies to more easily track updates to each other’s content. This offers potential for increased collaboration and information sharing across government that could reduce duplication and inconsistencies across government websites.

Irish Council websites

The Rep. of Ireland has 30 County Councils, providing a similar range of services to their UK equivalents. They all have websites, but few provide RSS feeds. Indeed, an investigation of these sites found only six provided RSS feeds for news releases. These were:

Out of these six, however, the feeds from Sligo and Kilkenny were not working correctly. Thus, only 13% of Irish County Councils provide functional RSS feeds. This is similar to the UK Council rate of 15%, when the Mash the State project began. The current rate is up to 21% following campaigning as a result of the initiative. A full list of Irish Council websites and their provision of RSS feeds is available at County Council RSS feeds.

The absence of RSS feeds is not just a local government issue, nor is it particularly a Irish problem. For example, the agency Enterprise Ireland, tasked with focusing on investing in research and innovation, does not provide RSS feeds for news releases.  Also, the EU website for Creativity and Innovation does not have RSS feeds available for its latest news. This is especially striking given its objective is to “raise awareness of the importance of creativity and innovation for personal, social and economic development”.

While there are services available that will create RSS feeds from webpages e.g. Feedity, Dapper and Versionista, the requirement should not be outsourced to users to free this data. Instead, councils should realise the potential for greater engagement and civic debate to emerge as a result of making data more open and accessible. For example, making the minutes of council meetings more easily accessible, creates a more transparent and accountable democratic environment, with which citizens can engage.

Importance and usefulness of data

Adrian Short provides an example of how and why RSS feeds are important in the context of aggregating local news content. The dissemination of data should be a priority for local councils. With this in mind, they should adhere to Open data principles of accessibility and machine processability.

The process for developing an RSS feed is relatively simple and inexpensive. Local Councils should at least try to provide feeds for News, Events, Job vacancies and Council meeting minutes. Also, their use of proprietary data formats e.g. Microsoft Word, for content should be overhauled. Instead, data should be available in raw text, HTML or RTF open standards. This will allow for content to be easily crawled and indexed by search engines, and thus easily found.

The decline of local newspapers means there will be less reporting and analysis of local council activities by traditional media outlets. Instead, much of this reporting may need to be taken up by local bloggers and special interest groups. Providing the public easy access to up-to-date local government information is a key requirement for active civic engagement in the local democratic process. Open data and transparency provides a solution to greater apathy and mistrust of local government institutions. It’s a means of empowering people and revitalising local democracy. Therefore, it’s intrinsic to the rational for local government, and should be embraced both in policy and technological terms.

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