RSS: A Really Simple Option for Communicating with Citizens

by Sophicity

While many cities have embraced the web as a way to communicate with their citizens, many are still trying to figure out the best way to leverage the vast number of tools and programs available to them. Most have websites up, but other technologies such as RSS, Twitter, and Blogs, are just now starting to come into play at the local government level. Since no one channel is usually good enough for every “listener” in the audience, a multi-pronged approach is the best way to effectively get information out into the world. Here, we’ll focus on one of the easiest methods of disseminating information – RSS.

At its heart, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) gives your website visitors the power to subscribe to the information that you put online. As you add new information to your site, users who have subscribed will automatically receive that information in much the same way that they receive email. This saves citizens time because they don’t have to periodically return to your site to check for new content. Not only does this help get information out quickly, it broadens the number of users that actually see it.

In a typical example, a user would come to your website’s news section and click on the RSS feed icon on the page or in their browser. Once the feed is saved, they’ll be able to pull into their RSS feed reader, like those provided in Outlook or by Google. It is very much a “pull” philosophy instead of the traditional “push”.

So where does RSS fit in amongst all of the other options? One disadvantage in RSS is that the feeds are anonymous so you will not be able to see who has subscribed to any given feed. This means that RSS generally works best if you don’t need to know who the identity of the subscriber. The advantage here is that by publishing once, you get two separate channels: The traditional site visitor and the visitor who would like to be kept instantly informed through RSS. With major web browsers supporting RSS, you’d be surprised at how many users take advantage of the technology.

One of our long-time customers, the City of Tybee Island,Ga, has embraced RSS as an additional means of communicating with their citizens. Realizing that some visitors may not be as comfortable with RSS as others, the City thoughtfully provided a very concise introduction to RSS on their site. In addition to a clear description of the usage and benefits of the technology, there is also a link to an entertaining but informative YouTube video on RSS.

License: Please feel free to copy, reuse, and print this article so long as you attribute it to Sophicity.

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Emi Whittle

That is a great article! Awesome (or Osom, as my daughter writes)! I will be passing the info on and definitely giving the proper credit. I have never taken the time to figure the RSS stuff out – so your article helps immensely!

Tim Verras

Thank Emi! RSS can be a powerful tool, especially with the growing importance of mobile devices that can easily pull RSS feeds. the can be especially useful for things like 311, Disaster Communications, or traffic advisories. And the nice this is, almost all major browsers (with the exception of Google Chrome) can natively support RSS.

In fact, that little green square with the white radio waves right below our pictures on this page is an RSS feed! they’re super easy to set up, but if you need any further tips or help, please let me know.

Maxine Teller

RSS is a good broadcast solution for governments large and small but it’s really very much of a Web 1.0 solution. It lacks two-way engagement and doesn’t facilitate community and conversations BETWEEN citizens within a jurisdiction. I agree with your assessment that it’s one component of a multi-pronged strategy.

Tim Verras

It’s a valid point. However, I tend to think of RSS more as a filter than as something that is a lesser version of new tech like twitter. Look at anyone’s iGoogle page and you’re likely to see a bevy of RSS widgets from news sites and blogs. We’re all busy folks, and RSS is a great way to just aggregate that constant stream of information so that you can quickly decide which conversations you want to take part in. It facilitates conversation by filtering out the noise.

Picture a convention center of full of vendors. I’m there for a specific purpose, but there’s no way I can keep track of all of the conversations going on at once- it’d be maddening. So instead, I get a feed of what conversations are happening NOW and a quick shortcut to get there so I can quickly become part of the discussion. RSS doesn’t create citizen interaction, it enables it; because even the most interesting Web 2.0-savvy blog post is useless if no one can find it through the noise.