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How to Create Open, Structured Content

Jul 29, 2013

Structured content refers to the concept of organizing and treating digital content like data. It’s a way of publishing content as modular, discrete pieces of information that are tagged with machine-readable descriptions. Structured content has the potential to transform how people find, understand, share, and use government information.

Why Structured Content Matters

Most digital content published by the federal government is still found on static HTML Web pages. This unstructured content doesn’t always adapt well to smaller screens, and it’s harder to discover, share, or reuse the information. Given the rapid pace at which new devices are introduced, you can no longer publish content and trust that your audience will only view it on a PC. The proliferation of tablets, smart phones, and other mobile devices is now driving publication of content that is divorced from presentation, and structured so the content is available and consumable anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Several recent policies support this shift by requiring federal agencies to publish content in open, shareable formats. Refer to the Open Data Policy—Managing Information as an Asset (PDF, 6 MB, 12 pages, May 2013); the Executive Order—Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information (May 2013); the Digital Government Strategy (May 2012), and OMB policy M-10-06, Open Government Directive (December 2009).

Create Once, Publish Everywhere

Structured content gives you granular control over your information, so you can “Create Once, Publish Everywhere,” instead of re-creating content for different platforms. Read about the COPE: Create Once, Publish Everywhere method from National Public Radio.

Share and Re-Use Content via RSS and APIs

Structured content enables others to aggregate and reuse information via Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, which automatically publish frequently changing information, and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which enable websites, programs, and devices to interact with one another. RSS and APIs are great ways to share information, because they can automate many tasks and automatically present the latest information, even combining information from several sources. But you can’t use these technologies without structured content.

As an example, if you publish information about an event as structured content, the same event information could be displayed as part of a calendar of events, or published via a news feed, or aggregated with other related events via an API. A short description of the event could display on mobile devices, and a longer description could display on a PC. The possibilities are endless.

Better Search

Search engines can also take advantage of structured content by offering more meaningful rich snippets, which are the descriptions that appear in search engine results. The more information you provide about your content, the more “machine-readable” it becomes, enabling Web services and helping search engines hone results to get your content to the people who need it.

How to Publish Structured Content

You can structure content by defining content types, and then publishing content so it conforms to the defined content type. You can also structure content by implementing a taxonomy, which is a way to classify information by attaching descriptive terms to each piece of content. Those terms might describe to what section of your site a particular page belongs, or what topics are discussed in a given blog post, or in what region of the country an office is located. The taxonomy should include pre-defined controlled vocabularies to describe and tag related pieces of content. Read this explanation of taxonomies (relates to Drupal but very clear and understandable).

Web pages are typically comprised of several common pieces of information, such as titles, dates, descriptions, or contributors. When you tag your content to identify and describe each of these elements, you’ve created structured content. This approach requires a significant shift from how federal agencies have traditionally managed content. The key is to think “building blocks” instead of “Web pages.”