Phillip Smith

2006: Year of the syndicated Web

It is hard to believe that it’s months into 2006 already — it seems like 2005 was just a blip on a very large radar screen.

Last June, I was working with my colleagues at Communicopia.Net to support the International Development Research Centre’s (IDRC) recently launched initiative. At the time, our colleague Mark Surman was working hard to document a vision of a global network of telecentres (anything from an Internet café in Nairobi to an ICT training centre in India) that could share information freely and fluidly.

As we discussed the design challenges around supporting this kind of information ecosystem — challenges that were both technical and political — we sketched out an idea that was roughly “the opposite of a portal:” something that keeps the information flowing at the edges of the network.

This is a challenge faced by many of the “network organizations” that I’ve worked with. Often these network organizations are small non-profits like the Sustainability Network that provide information, learning opportunities, and management support to hundreds of member organizations that work on a specific issue, like the environment, poverty, or employment. A lot of what these organizations do naturally is aggregate ideas, papers, reports, and events and syndicate them out to their members (often via e-mail or paper-based newsletter).

In the process of thinking about the challenges faced by IDRC’s global network, I put together a list of online tools that I’ve been excited about. Mostly I’ve been excited about their potential to help address the challenges of transferring knowledge across networks and to provide simple solutions to common challenges.

Not wanting to bore folks with the complete list, I’ll just highlight a few of the key themes here:

Really Simple Syndication

Often referred to as RSS, this simple data standard allows organizations to send or receive “feeds” of information. These feeds can be displayed on a Web site or read in special RSS readers. Not wanting to cover a topic that many have already, I’ll just point you to the article “10 Reasons Nonprofits Should Use RSS” for more information.

I’m not that excited by the technology itself — or even the often-lauded reasons why non-profits should embrace it — but I am excited by what I see as some potential uses of it...

  • Many of the free services like Craigslist and Ebay’s new Kijiji offer RSS feeds of very specific information like jobs of a certain kind or in a certain area or free offerings like furniture. I can’t help but feel that uses these services to provide very frequently updated listings of information relevant to a client group — like new Canadians or youth looking for work — would be one opportunity to explore.
  • Add to that that ability to deliver these listings over the phone, using free software that would read the RSS feeds, and an organization could provide automatically updated information for clients without Internet access.

Social bookmarking

Really kicked off this year through the success of services like, Furl, Spurl, and the new (fancy) — social bookmarking aims to make those old-and-tired Web pages that you’ve saved useful again. The basic idea is to save those “Bookmarks” and “Favourites” online where they can be shared with your colleagues. Add to that the ability to “Tag” — or quickly categorize with simple keywords — those saved bookmarks and suddenly you’re on to something. Go one-step further and use RSS to publish these bookmarks to a Web site for your members and you’re really cooking.

If you’d like to read more about social bookmarking, please have a look at the article “Social Bookmarking Tool Comparison” on Consultant Commons.

Again, here are some practical ideas on how progressive organizations could actually use simple, free, tools like these in real life:

  • Shared bookmarks in a youth employment centre could help to keep job development staff coordinated with the latest resources and helpful sites for job skills, search, and training. The bookmarks could then be published to the Centre’s Web site or sent to clients on a regular basis via e-mail
  • For organizations working on legislative or legal issues, social bookmarking can be a way for a team to collect and organize a large number of Web-based resources, such as references to specific passages from the Debates of the Senate (Hansard) or media and press coverage of an issue. Already, folks are creating feeds of House of Commons Committee happenings that allow you to follow (and publish) information that may effect your organization or clients.

Syndicated search

Finally, and probably the most significant, is syndicated search. Lead by services like Google and Yahoo! Alerts, PubSub, and Technorati, it is now possible to “search the future” as Kris Krug put it at this year’s Web of Change gathering. In reality, that means that you can create a search query that is executed in real time, constantly. Then, as results come in, they can be syndicated — or published — onto a Web site or delivered via e-mail. Think about it: you can get notified of new search results on something important to your organization (like mentions in the media, or new legislation, etc.) without having to lift a finger!

Some possible uses of syndication search would be:

  • To automatically track certain issues in the media and deliver them to member organizations via e-mail or the Web
  • To keep information on an organization's Web site fresh with constantly updated and highly-targeted information that is published instantly via an RSS feed

Finally, with tools like RSS Mix and Feed Digest you can “re-mix” all of this information in interesting ways. For example, the BBC’s Backstage allows people to take information that is published by the BBC and extend it with new functionality. For some inspiration, just take a look at some of the examples of what some bright people are doing with these simple tools.

Have ideas and examples of your own — why not share a few here?


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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