A call to arms to developers: How far can you take our travel advice?

Providing accurate and timely travel advice is one of the key functions of the Foreign Office, and one of the key drivers of our web presence.

Our Travel and living abroad section provides background notes for travellers on every country in the world, including timely alerts of the implications of all sorts of issues which can affect your travel – from changes to visa requirements, to natural disasters to political crises – all so that when these occur travellers can stay safe abroad. These pages are amongst our most popular, attracting nearly 26 million page views (5 million visitors) in the 12 months to March this year.

And while it’s nice that people come to the site, and is a handy indicator when people measure the value of the site, the distribution of this information is what’s important, which is one of the reasons why we post this stuff on Facebook and tweet it out too. But we also need to get this information out on platforms which don’t have our logo on them, and for that, like most people, we use RSS feeds.

Anyone can follow the latest alerts and changes using our travel advice RSS feeds in a standard reader like Google Reader or Netvibes. But you can consider this a call to developers to use our feeds as they want, to make our data useful, to add relevant information, to create visualisations, mobile apps or map-based viewers, incorporating extra machine-readable data about locations, contact details, reviews, ticket booking, all sorts of information and services that you wouldn’t expect a government department to provide, and, hopefully, pulled together in clever and innovative ways that you wouldn’t expect from a civil servant.

The existing travel advice feed on the site contains the alerts, the advice, the news and the embassy details all rolled into one. It does the job. It’s useful and relevant but it is also blunt and we know there are ways we can do it better.

We have started the ball rolling by creating some test feeds containing additional custom elements, so that each element in the feed is generated from a single field from our database of travel advice.

The feeds are:

We’ve just scratched the surface but we believe there is lots of potential in this – as a simple example, an outside developer has mapped some information in a smartphone-friendly format.

Publishing some of our underlying data as enhanced RSS feeds is a way of opening up the information we hold for reuse and keeping this data up-to-date without spending money developing and supporting a full API. For the time being we will not replace the current travel advice RSS feed promoted on the site. But we may phase it out while also trying similar things with other areas of content.

In the next three months there are a number of things that we want you to help us achieve by using the experimental feeds:

  • Tell us who you are and show off what you have done with the feeds. We want to better understand the demand, and also try and showcase the good stuff with links (which comes with free Googlebait) to the best uses of this information. And if we alter the feeds significantly, it means we can tell you directly.
  • We recognise there may be discrepancies in the data, and many eyes are better than a few in pinpointing holes.
  • If you need the data format tweaked or cleaned-up to make it easier to reuse, tell us what you need and we’ll see what’s possible

All that we ask is that you help us with these aims by leaving comments on this blog or by emailing us at [email protected], and that you observe some, pretty basic key ‘principles for reuse’:

  • Maintain the brand of the data. Attribute this data to ‘FCO’ with a link back to our site, because the authority of the source is important
  • Do not edit or misrepresent this information
  • Do not sell it without adding value to it

Which isn’t too much to ask. See what you can do, and let us know…

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