Can RSS Relieve Information Overload?

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Today's enterprise employees have more information at their fingertips than at any point in history. While this information can certainly help companies, how is an individual or even a large group able to keep up with the volume?

According to the Online Computer Library Center, the number of distinct Web sites grew from 2.8 million in 1998 to more than 9 million by 2002, when they stopped keeping track. When you consider that these sites consist of billions of pages and then factor in millions of Weblogs, workers are faced with an information-glut of mythical proportions. While this information can certainly help companies track competition, understand markets and trends, and gather more information than ever believed possible, how can a large group, much less an individual, be able to keep up with the volume?

One way is with RSS, an XML specification for content syndication, which allows you to subscribe to the information you want to see and get notified anytime new information is available. What's more, companies can take advantage of the simplicity of the RSS specification to feed information inside and outside the firewall. For instance, companies can set up internal RSS feeds for employees on subjects such as the latest changes in the Human Resources portal or updates of concern to individual departments or projects or, rather than sending an email newsletter to customers, you could provide the same information as an RSS feed. In both of these examples, organizations provide information only to the parties that are truly interested, subsequently relieving some of the pressure on clogged email inboxes, which up until now have been the de facto information collection center.

What is RSS?
The RSS acronym has a number of meanings, but it has come to be aptly defined as Really Simple Syndication. According to Chris Pirillo, who runs Lockergnome's RSS Resource (a site devoted to all things RSS), it is an XML specification used to describe how to display content (also known as a feed) in a piece of software called a news aggregator. Content providers write their feed according to this RSS specification and people can subscribe to the feed using the news aggregation software. News aggregators (See sidebar) come in a variety of styles including desktop clients, Web-based services, and even one that works inside Microsoft Outlook.

Each news aggregator works a little differently, but they all provide a way to subscribe to a content source, then organize and view feeds (subscriptions). Instead of seeing a whole article, you view just a headline and a summary, which allows you to quickly scan the information and then click through to the source Web site to read the entire article of only specific items you want. After you subscribe to a feed, you can receive site updates as often as every 15 minutes or at whatever time interval you choose.

You can subscribe to individual Web sites (such as the NewYorkTimes.com or CNET.com) or build a feed on a particular term such as your company name or industry. Any time that term turns up on a Web site or blog, you will then be informed via your news aggregator software, rather than your email box.

Information Gathering Made Easy
Although RSS is only just beginning to make headway into the mainstream enterprise computing environment, it has great potential to help knowledge workers gather information more efficiently. What makes the news aggregator so useful is that it collects information effortlessly from the sites you previously needed to visit. Scott Young, CEO of UserLand Software, one of the pioneering RSS companies and makers of the Radio UserLand and Manila blogging tools, says, "RSS is an interesting way of getting information and news that you don't have to look for. In the past you went to a Web site, and if you liked it, you went to that site over and over again. If you had 10 sites you liked, that's what you did (or more than likely you didn't have time). RSS allows the information to come to you."

In addition, it's software that doesn't require a lot of training to understand. Jennifer Klyse, enterprise application analyst at Washington, DC law firm Patton Boggs, is in the process of implementing the NewsGator news aggregator in some areas of the firm. She says, "I think this is a relatively low tech application from a user perspective." She feels most users will require only a demonstration of how it works and maybe a handout to refer to later.

For technical workers, RSS offers a fairly straightforward implementation path. Jake Savin, lead programmer at UserLand, says that it's simple enough for a mid-level IT person to implement. "RSS is very simple, very easy to read, and more transparent than most XML formats," Savin says.

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