RSS at the Tipping Point

Nick Browne    

Coraider Services Presentation to Metropolitan Police

 11 September 2003


The term “tipping point” refers to the concept that small changes will have little or no effect on a system until a critical mass is reached. Then a further small change "tips" the system and a large effect is observed.


This idea is very useful for explaining some of the trends that we have observed in the world of computing. The Internet itself, and then the World Wide Web and HTML were around for a long time before they reached a turning point and became ubiquitous.


We think that another internet technology – RSS - is about to reach that stage.


Content Syndication


RSS – Really Simple Syndication – is an Internet content syndication format. Content syndication can make all or part of a web site’s content (or of any other application’s data) available for use by other sites, applications or services.


The syndicated content– or feed – consists of both the direct content itself, and meta data which is information about the content.


RSS are usually delivered over HTTP so they can be made available to any device with an Internet or intranet connection. This makes it very easy to develop RSS feeds for any applications with Web interfaces. A feed is in many respects just another web page.


RSS feeds are produced in XML (eXtended Mark up Language), however, which means that – unlike traditional web pages - they are difficult for people to read directly.




Programs called aggregators have been developed to add an additional layer of usability to RSS feeds.


Aggregators regularly check the range of feeds to which a user is subscribed, and then assist in organising, managing and tracking them.


RSS Aggregators can rid you of the burden of checking through many different sites and systems in order to keep yourself up to date. This is the key benefit that RSS can bring to the Police.

Internet Example: BBC News Feeds

The BBC publishes a wide variety of RSS feeds broken down by geography and area of interest.


The UK Politics feed for example can be found at:

A typical item from the feed containing a title, a description and a link that can be followed for more information is shown below:



<title>MP defends Kelly grilling</title>

<description>The Labour MP who suggested to Dr David Kelly he was the government's "fall guy" defends his questioning at the Hutton inquiry.</description>




Internet Desktop Example: Newsgator


Newsgator is an RSS aggregator that runs in Outlook. It will periodically check all of your subscriptions to see if any content has been added or updated, and put the new articles into designated news folders. This is a favourite aggregator in Coraider Services, because it enables us to use the powerful organizational capabilities of Outlook to:


  • organize news by  source, date, or any other field.
  • easily forward content to colleagues, or drop into public folders on Exchange.
  • search and sort news articles, just as we do for email.

Figure 1: Newsgator

Internet Desktop Example: FeedDemon

The FeedDemon Aggregator gathers items in a Newspaper for easy reading.


Figure 2: Newsgator with Dispatch and Help Desk Feeds

Newsgator includes watches. A watch is a special channel that searches all incoming news items for specific keywords.


This feature is an early indicator of the potential power of ubiquitous RSS. RSS is valid XML. Different RSS feeds can easily be combined and manipulated.


A Utopian objective would be to have an RSS feed from each officer’s notebook.

Internal Police Example: ICAD

The contents of a dispatch system may be considered as in some way analogous to the contents of a notebook. Coraider Services has written a Web browser interface for the ICAD dispatch system used by Surrey Police. The web page illustrated below can be used to build RSS Feeds that could be used to follow the progress of any unit, or in any area, or of any particular incident. (An example incident feed – based on test data – is shown in figure 2 above.)


Figure 3: ICAD RSS Builder


External Police Example: Public Facing Investigation Blog


RSS feeds are often associated with Weblogs. Weblogs are online chronological journals that are used for a variety of personal and professional purposes. They are a hugely popular Internet phenomenon.


A Weblog could be a very useful tool for distributing information to the public and the media for ongoing investigations.


The Surrey Police Miller Dowler page on looks very like a Weblog.


Associating an RSS feed with this page would enable journalists and interested members of the public to follow the case. The likelihood that local Webloggers would link back to the page (a practice called Blogrolling) would also increase the visibility of the information.


(Neighbourhood Watch web sites based on Web Log Technology could utilise RSS easily and cheaply to mirror information from the Police etc. to keep themselves up to date. Similarly it would be straightforward to track many Neighbourhood Watch schemes centrally by subscribing to their feeds.)

External Example: Bumblebee Auctions: Auto subscribe


RSS supports an auto discovery mechanism that simplifies subscribing to an RSS feed. Text in the following format is added to inside the HTML HEAD tag:


<LINK rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="RSS" href="">


This indicates that is the RSS feed that corresponds to the page in question.


The Newsgator aggregator for example supports this feature by adding a button to the Internet Explorer toolbar.


Auto subscribe has been implemented in


CJX Example: ACPO

Coraider Services has just delivered a quote to ACPO to deliver a number of enhancements to the Intranet that is made available to each force’s ACPO offices via the CJX. These enhancements will include the ability for authorised users to subscribe to feeds based on documents that require a response, urgent newsflashes etc.


The enhancement will also include the ability to subscribe to a feed based on a search of the contents of the Intranet so that any documents matching the search that are posted to it in future are notified to the interested party.

Figure 4: RSS Feeds on the ACPO Intranet (Test Data)



External Example: Virtual Bumblebee

It is intended that the Virtual Bumble Bee system will grow into a comprehensive UK database of lost and recovered property. When this happens, secure RSS feeds from this database could be a valuable investigative tool.


The poster that Surrey Police produced to support the Milly Dowler investigation says


Officers are also keen to find Milly's clothes and possessions:

  • School uniform of navy blue blazer, light blue V-neck jumper, white blouse, short grey skirt, navy and light blue striped tie.
  • Pair black 'Pod' shoes.
  • Nokia 3210 phone with silver front and blue back marked “Milly”,
  • beige and black Jansport rucksack and
  • white plastic purse with red heart motif.


It would be comparatively straightforward to provide an RSS feed that would notify appropriate officers if whenever a phone or a rucksack matching this description was found or seized.


Live Example: Bloglines


Figure 5: Bumblebee in Bloglines


Bloglines is a free online RSS aggregator. The figure above shows an account that has been set up with feeds from the BBC, MSDN, Bumblebee and Bumblebee Auctions. A live demonstration will form part of this presentation.


Recommendations and Conclusions.


RSS is a practical working technology not a prototype or a pipe dream. It offers an achievable base camp on the computer industry’s long march towards ubiquitous XML.


Aggregators are the key to deriving operational rewards from RSS, but organisations should shy away from developing their own aggregating software. Competition in the aggregator market, and perhaps the entry of the largest software companies, will provide cheap, innovative useful tools.


It would be prudent to add RSS feeds (and auto discovery) on an ongoing basis to all new software projects. The marginal costs will be very small.


Pilot projects should be undertaken to introduce the software and concepts to a range of staff.