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The Content Corner: Structured Content and the Power of Syndication

A recent DigitalGov webinar on syndicated content and the recent achievements of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helped open my eyes even wider to the possibilities of open and structured content. By offering critical health information via syndication, CDC and other Department of Health and Human Services agencies are helping resource-strapped local agencies share critical Web content with very little effort.

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APIs and Syndication

Structured content and APIs form the core of any open content platform, whether it be syndication or other types of data sharing. For CDC and HHS as a whole, APIs power their own apps, plus serve as a foundation for a variety of ways to use, reuse, or share their content for topics such as:

  • HIV statistics and basic information,
  • seasonal flu information, including vaccine facts, and
  • childhood vaccination facts.

CDC and other agencies within HHS realized the broad appeal of their health and public safety content and were able to leverage their content management systems and APIs to develop Web content “storefronts”. These storefronts, which are also offered by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, allow other agencies and organizations to browse a variety of health-related content that can be added to their own websites.

CDC content syndication infographic sketch

FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products provides a wide array of scientific-backed content related to smoking cessation or prevention, especially targeting youth smoking.

NIH, via the main HHS syndication storefront, also shares content on topics ranging from oral care to genomic data access.

This storefront content also ranges in content type, including infographics, social media-tailored posts, widgets, and the API-driven dynamically updated content.

This dynamic content can be extremely powerful, essentially allowing another organization to post a small amount of JavaScript in order to provide a full microsite developed around a particular theme. The content will update as the associated agency updates their own site, helping reduce maintenance overhead and ensuring potentially critical content remains updated.

The response to the CDC content offerings has been so strong that they now have 2,000 registered syndication partners taking advantage of the content storefront to help share CDC’s information with an even broader audience. The combination of shared audiences for the content and limited resources among other public health organizations is driving additional collaborations with CDC.

It’s Fun To Code at The…

One recent partnership where the sharing of content has gone even deeper than the storefront is CDC’s development of curated content sections for a Health and Wellness microsite for the YMCA. The framework of CDC’s structured content and APIs allows the development of a specific content package that can then be easily featured on the YMCA’s own website using only a few lines of code. This small snippet of code then allows the YMCA to share CDC’s content on their own branded site with their 2,700 affiliates and 20 million members.

Again, the power of structured content allows this type of content reuse which not only saves other organizations time and effort but also reduces duplicate content and ensures accurate information is being shared.

One of the big benefits that I was really struck by was how much syndication and open data could help smaller agencies and organizations. I feel pretty safe in saying that without the CDC capabilities, a lot of local health agency websites would be much less populated than they are now.

Stacey Thalken with CDC spotlighted the Union County health professionals (none of them Web or mobile savvy) and their success leveraging CDC’s content in order to provide the best content possible to their users with very few resources or technical expertise. I don’t think the benefits that these CDC and collective HHS content efforts provide local public health departments can be overstated. This is the power of adopting a structured content framework in a practical and tangible form that could even help save lives.

Helping Others Have Mobile Moments

Global digital concept

Another powerful aspect of the CDC content syndication efforts is that because of their efforts in developing content that will work with their own responsive design templates, it comes ready made for mobile devices. Some of this will depend on your own site’s architecture (if your site itself isn’t responsive, then it won’t magically change) but if it is, or you have mobile-friendly templates, then the CDC content should display correctly (unless I’m horribly mistaken).

This was critical to the CDC’s development of their own content model based around their most common content type, which was questions and answers. By knowing their audience and their content, they determined that most of their users come to their site with specific health or disease-related questions and are looking for answers. CDC responded to this by developing a question and answer content model that then allowed for this content to be packaged in a variety of ways for various devices and channels.

One example of where this reusable content was especially important was during the recent Ebola outbreak within the U.S. As you can imagine, CDC (and local health websites) were swamped by users with worries and questions about various aspects of the Ebola virus:

  • How is it transmitted?
  • Can I catch it in (fill in your locality)?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • What if I traveled to Africa?

This content model and the structured and open content that it facilitated allowed CDC to help users find answers to their questions wherever they were and on whatever device they were using. So whether the content is appearing on the CDC site or a local health agency’s site, the structured content allows various chunks of information to be assembled as needed depending on the device and the user’s needs.

CDC is continuing to look for partners to further develop new ways to package and redistribute their content to more audiences. The more people who have access to the CDC content, the better communities can be informed about a wide range of public health and safety issues. The same holds true for almost all public sector Web content. By syndicating your content, you can take the create once, publish everywhere (COPE) model to an even higher level and create your content once and also allow others to publish it everywhere and anywhere.

You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.

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