Thursday, June 24, 2010

Getting information to travel to you on your mobile phone

I know I'm a bit late to the party but recently , I came across Helene Blower's "New digital divide" via @digicmb.

As I never had the privilege to hear Helene Blowers speak, I don't pretend to fully understand what she means fully for some statements (particularly the 4th one about "informal languages")*, but the difference between those who know how to get information to travel to them vs those who still chase it is pretty clear.

No doubt, this refers primarily to the use of RSS feeds, or various alerts (email/Instant messaging/Twitter), to be alerted in real-time or near real-time when there is news of interest to you.

With the increased use of smart phones and mobile devices, those on the right side of the new digital divide,  know how to get information to travel to them 24/7 on the go onto their mobile phones and not just their desktops.

With a smartphone, you can choose to be alerted of an event of interest in the following general ways

1. Email
2. SMS
3. Instant Message
4. App notification on phone (Push notification for iPhone users)
5. Phone call!

The event of interest could be  pretty much anything. Some examples

  1. A tweet from an account or on a list you are interested in
  2. A tweet that fits a twitter search
  3. A new rss entry from a feed you are interested in
  4. A rss feed entry that fits a keyword search you setup
  5. A journal article of interest is posted
  6. A journal article of interest is cited
  7. A google or other search engine alert
  8. Reminder of some appointment/event
  9. Person of interest is nearby
  10. Lots more.....
In addition if you are feeling geeky, in certain cases some sort of additional filtering can be also done to ensure a better fit before an alert is sent. For example keyword matching of RSS items (Use YahooPipes or alternatives) or even sophisticated  bayesian filtering of RSS feeds

When I got my iPhone in Dec, I started experimenting with the various types of alerts.

Email alerts

Email alerts are easy to setup and is probably the most common type of alert and is provided by most services.

However it has drawbacks. On my iPhone, I get a chime tone whenever an email arrives. This is nice, but even my most secure work email account has tons of email coming in daily, so you probably don't want to open your email on your phone whenever you hear a chime.

Besides in the case of an iPhone, I'm not aware of any way to quickly preview to see if you are interested in the mail but instead you must unlock your phone, go to the mail app and wait for the email to load.

You could do some sort of email filtering so whenever you hear a chime it's something you definitely want to notice of course but you still can't get away from needing to unlock your phone.

SMS alerts

How about getting alerts via SMS? This seems ideal, as on an iPhone, the text message will popup on your phone , and you don't even need to unlock to read the message.

The problem here is that while many services provide alerts via SMS (Twitter is probably the most famous one) or you can use something like (a generic system that offers SMS,IM,Email alerts for RSS feeds etc) , in general if you are outside the US, such services don't work.

The only reliable service I'm aware that does SMS alerts no matter where you are is Google Calender alerts. This has in fact being exploited by Hongkong libraries to setup free alerts

Another possibility would be to try playing around with email to SMS services, but such services are not stable in my experience.

Instant Messages

Relatively few services provide alerts via IM, but you can use Friendfeed or to accomplish most of this if RSS is available.

On an iPhone using either paid IM clients like BeejiveIM or free ones like Meebo, one can receive an instant push notification, which allows you to preview the message.

One example would be to setup a search in Google alert as RSS feed, then feed it into  Friendfeed or . These services can then send an IM to you, whenever there is a new entry (typically you have to add some bot as a contact first)

Notification by your smartphone app

In some cases, the service you are using might have an app, that does notifications on its own. This is almost always superior to the above methods, since it's direct and opening the notification will directly send you to the right app.

Some examples

1. Facebook app (free)
2. FourSquare app (free)
3. App for some journal/magazine/database site e.g Scopus app (mostly free)
4. Some Twitter app such as iTwitter or echofon pro with push notification (paid)
5. Scheduing type apps like ReQall

But most of these apps are limited to specific events, but there are iPhone apps that provide generic notifications. The three free ones I know of are BoxCar, Notifo & Webwag iflow

Service/ App  Boxcar Notifo iflow
@mentions/dms to your account  Yes Yes Yes
Your timeline Yes No No
Tweets from other selected accounts No Yes No
Twitter search No No  Limited
Twitter lists Yes No  No
Twitter trends Yes No  No
RSS feeds Yes No  No
Email Yes No  No
Facebook Yes No  No
Google Voice SMS alerts No Yes No

Facebook itself is somewhat irrelevant, as there is already a Facebook app that does a good job of notifications. 

They all cover Twitter to some extent, except BoxCar currently doesn't do Twitter searches (or am I missing something). Webwag iflow does seem to support Twitter searches but the last I checked there is a bug so you can only enter one keyword!

Overall based on the table above BoxCar is still the most flexible, this is due to the fact that it  does RSS feeds as well as emails. Obviously support of RSS means pretty much any service can be added.

As the figure below shows Boxcar receives notifications on Tweet replies, RSS feeds and emails.

Support of emails is probably even more important. 

For the latter, what you can do is to setup email alerts as per normal. But as mentioned above, email alerts tend to be easy to miss amount all the other emails, and emails don't display in preview mode.

So what you do is you setup a filter rule (I use Gmail) to forward to a special email created by BoxCar .

What I do is to setup filter rules for alerts, I want Boxcar to pop up on.

So for example I set up a rule to forward an email whenever I get a web of science citation alert or when an email comes from a certain sender.

Whenever, this happens , Boxcar will popup a nice preview notification showing who the sender is, and what the subject is.

Notifo is interesting as well, use it with the free to get tweets from up to 30 accounts (useful for those of us in countries where there is no free sms from twitter).

Below shows a notification from Notifo , a tweet from the Twitter account timeshighered (an account I follow closely)

There are other services including Femtoo which tracks webpages changes, Listia for auctions etc.

In my last post, I shows examples of the importance of doing scanning of mentions of your library on the net, and responding when necessary .

The apps above allow you to set up alerts to your phone so you can be alerted and respond quickly. Unfortunately, for twitter searches, there isn't a good free app. BoxCar used to support this, but it seemed to have disappeared when they went free (can someone confirm)?

Webwag iflow has this option (see below), but as I write this it only works with single keyword searches (bug?)

There are paid solutions for notifications for twitter searches such as itweetreply (which I use).

Prowl isn't free but is even more flexible. Essentially a program called Growl runs on your PC, and sends notifications to your iPhone when necessary. See a list of events/apps that can push events notifications to your phone.

Future - internet of things 

Currently what events you can be notified about are limited to web services or events on your desktop. However visionaries are dreaming of a world, where the fabled "internet of things" is in place,  sensors in every device and every household device is intelligent and capable of sending information to you when needed.

For example your fridge could tell you that it is running out of milk which would popup as a warning on your phone....

This would be indeed knowing how to get information to travel to you!
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