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Wednesday, 26 August 2009

RSS vs Twitter in local government: a serious imbalance?

The Tortoise and the Hare, illustrated by Milo...Image via Wikipedia

eGovernment Register reports today on 'social media' use in local councils (LAs), noting that work by Liz Azyan published on her blog at shows it at:

% of LAs
Web dev blogs/feeds

Now I would argue that RSS is a bit misclassified here as 'social media'. That's one interpretation of it but another is as a data feed. That's what the Mash The State campaign is about, having feeds which can be 'auto-discovered' and are machine readable.

What shocked me in these numbers is that Twitter has in a few months been adopted by more councils than RSS over many years. You have to ask as well what 'RSS' use is being reported. Is it merely a feed of press releases extolling the greatness of the council as opposed to, say, planning applications or sports events? Mash The State's campaign is actually about the incredibly modest goal of all councils have a PR RSS feed by the end of this year. The bar has been set low by a campaign group: this speaks volumes.

So why is Mash The State modestly and quietly plodding along but Twitter shooting off and quickly overtaking? Fashion, what else could it be?

Local government webbies have spotted this trend and worked on that because it's easier and, frankly, because Twitter is in the news and can be thus more easily portrayed as a 'must-have'. It's 'low-hanging fruit', an 'easy win'.

It's not just Twitter. Web development blogs can be incredibly useful for webbie teams to get feedback on site development - that's why companies from Google to run them. But they require that bit extra of time and resources, and planning and arguing (and understanding) for their usefulness. So why are they so rare and why is there no research or group arguing for them or people demonstrating their ROI and giving them momentum?

Same goes for Facebook and YouTube (and the absent Myspace and Bebo): their collective use far outweighs Twitter so why are they much less prominent?

There's another danger here which is that which being prey to fashion has for the longer-term embedding of web in local government.

For councilors and many council staff (plus service users), who want to see and experience clear benefit, the potential for (open source) applications such as those being developed by #rewired state and #youngrewiredstate is far greater to my mind than it is from Twitter. But in the political and PR battle for the attention of Lgov webbies, especially its movers and shakers, are they losing attention and therefore potentially funding and other resources, like developer time?

These numbers should make Lgov people stop and think hard about what we're doing and where the priorities are. Yes Twitter is great and I love it but let's not just cheer what they say about the progress of social media and quote the Twitter number, let's look at the laggards and ask what we can do to get those numbers up to where they should be.
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  1. I think your analysis is spot on. While there is undeniably value in social media like Twitter when Done Right, the potential long-term benefits of open data projects are far greater. Sadly, open data doesn't get the resources it deserves for a variety of reasons including perceived complexity, fear of what third parties may do with the data and in many authorities the lack of articulate champions that can bridge the gap between technical implementation and strategic outcomes.

    It's worth picking apart these aggregate figures for social media and open data usage. Many councils are simply pushing their news headlines through their pre-existing RSS feeds into Twitter. I wonder how many council Twitter accounts that covers. So for these councils, having RSS has given them a springboard to "get on Twitter", albeit not making the best use of that medium.

    I've been quite explicit that government open data means business as unusual. It has the potential to be enormously disruptive -- in a good way, of course. Government does not have the resources, the motivation, the skills and very often the nerve to build the multitude of applications and services that the public increasingly expects and demands and as technology proliferates that problem will only get worse. The gap is widening between what could be done and what is being done. One obvious example is mobile services -- a whole new platform and user context in which government is largely absent.

    Open data activists are effectively asking government to give up their monopoly of the user interfaces to and experiences of their services. This is a Big Deal. I get the impression that of the government organisations that even understand the implications of this, most don't like it. I believe that the benefits and opportunities of this "inside-out" web strategy far outweigh the costs and risks but it's going to be a slow process winning that argument.

    By comparison, hopping onto Twitter, as useful as it is, is a walk in the park.


  2. Many thanks for this Adrian. As I wrote I felt like I was walking to the edge of a cliff as what I'm saying goes against the trend and possibly pisses off friends.

    In your response the key phrase I think is "the public increasingly expects and demands".

    Lgov *should be led by customer need but so very often it is not. This is why other issues like usability which I 'bang on about' are so low in priorities.

    What I'm also saying is that people need to get a lot smarter politically and strategically in the choices the make, their priorities. The environment for egov spending is going to change and I honestly don't think many people are thinking about that and planning how to respond.

  3. Why should Twitter be more popular than RSS? I think the most significant factor may be that joining Twitter doesn't require any technical assistance from the IT department and/or contractor, nor any kind of procurement process.

    You go on the public Twitter website, fill in a quick form, and you're away. All you need are a web browser and the desire to do it.

    RSS is more effort, requires thought, and (usually) technical assistance. But it's still the key to so many great things online.

    It's a genuine disgrace for new sites to come online these days without prominent RSS feeds (plural).

  4. What Simon says (do this!)

    I think RSS is just more difficult to understand, and to implement.

    Perhaps there is also an issue of CMS support in website CMSs, or the facility being available as an extra cost add-on. Should it be a mandated or recommended basic facility?

    Perhaps it is also that any Council Officer can just (from a "doing it" angle, not policy) implement Twitter themselves without telling anyone.

    Is there a list of feeds we can follow to get comments into the Council Twitterstreams ? ;-)


  5. Ooops. Not logged in to correct account.

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