Monday, March 22, 2010

Using RSS feeds to distribute library news - 6 ways


Okay, I'm a big fan of RSS feeds, many of the posts here involve manipulating or consuming RSS feeds in some form, and social media is essentially tied to RSS. "Aggregating sources for academic research in a web 2.0 world" is probably my most popular post on how to consume RSS feeds from various sources. "Bayesian filtering of RSS feeds - can you automatically find interesting journal articles?" considers how bayesian filtering can filter out all the noise to find entries that are relevant.


But that is all from the point of a consumer on how to bring together to use existing RSS feeds. Recently I've being wondering how to go about generating RSS feeds?


In particular, I have being thinking of how libraries can provide news events (opening hours, library talks tutorials, service outrages, changes in policy) as RSS feeds. The benefits of providing news in RSS feeds is obvious basically increased portability as well as ability to filter/merge structured data etc.

Once you have generated a news feed using RSS feeds, the sky's the limit. At the very least you probably want to create some sort of RSS display widget and put it on your library homepage. You could push it into Facebook fan pages, Twitter accounts etc. If you use conduit toolbars as library toolbar, you could stick it in there, and so on (See post here by Guus can den Brekel for more ideas)  .

Essentially your library news can now appear and be auto-updated in many locations.

But how can one go about creating a RSS feed? Below is my rambling thoughts of the possibilities out there.

1. Manually creating a RSS feed

It seems that RSS feed is just a simple XML file, and there are guides out there that teach you how to create simple feeds. This seems a bit too tedious for most non-techies (including myself).

2. Converting from other file formats

If your library is like mine, a lot of data is generated in Excel format. I found this interesting excel template that uses macros to automatically convert excel into RSS.


I have used an excel sheet of new subscribed resources as a proof of concept. It's quite easy to do.

3. Custom RSS generator software

There are software that help create RSS feeds such as ssRSS, and I understand server software like Drupal create RSS feeds as well. But this is still on the geeky side. If your library catalogue supports generation of RSS feeds, you can do tricks like generating feeds based on new additions etc, but you can't quite do events.

4.Use screen scraping tools

Static pages if produced in a structured format (e.g. tables) can be screen scraped to produce a RSS feed with services like Feedity, Dapper (my favorite) and more 

In theory you could create a table of events on a static page, then use say Dapper to create a RSS feed. This works most of the time though it's clearly unstable and slow (if the page structure changes the RSS feed fails), but if the data you need is not created by you, you basically have no choice. But if you already decided you want to create a RSS feed. creating a static html page and then converting it to RSS feed is simply perverse.


5.Use social media platforms that automatically offer RSS feeds of content added

When I polled my followers on Twitter on how they created RSS of library news, the vast majority used platforms like Twitter and blogs. This is probably the easiest and most effective way as they automatically generate RSS feeds from your tweets or blog posts respectively.


 Below, we see an example of library news being presented in a Twitter feed widget, from BlackHawk College.



The twitter account used can be found here . The widget above is the official Twitter widget with scrolling news, but Twitter offers a RSS feed, which can then be used like any other RSS feed with other RSS widgets if you don't like the official one.


Personally I think blog platforms would be superior to Twitter for this purpose, for one thing why limit yourself to 140 characters?

In addition if you are using Twitter accounts to interact with users/ answer tweets, you probably will need a second account for that purpose (to keep the first feed "clean" - containing only news) and then use something like Twitterfeed to push the first twitter stream into that Twitter account.

In comparison, in theory you could use one blog to post news as well as to interact with users, as you can answer comments without affecting the main feed (comments are typically a seperate feed).

Below we have an example from the Champlain College Library using a blog to generate RSS news feed


The RSS feed is generated using Blogger/Blogspot , clicking on each entry will bring you to the appropriate blog entry. Champlain College library has opted to use the widget from Yourminis to display the feed (there are many other alternatives). The nice thing of this widget platform is that users can easily add this widget to other platforms (blogs, social networks like facebook, netvibes etc) but unofficially the service is shutting down soon.


 
There is no shortage of alternative services (see list and comparison of embeddable widgets that display RSS feeds by Stephen Francoeur), including Netvibes, Clearspring , WidgetBox which provide the ability to easily export to other platforms, but clearly one issue here is selecting a widget maker that isn't going to display anytime soon.


There are many blog platforms that can be used such as WordPress, Blogger, Typepad etc, but an interesting idea @Wichor suggested was the blog platform Posterous. The main advantage of using Posterous as pointed out by Wichor was that one could post blog entries by simply sending an email (I believe blogspot allows this also).

Posterous has a host of other features as well including the ability to autopost/push posterous updates to your other social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook etc . This is handy to have if your library has these accounts. Of course, most social media services these days allow you to import RSS feeds into the stream anyway, so this is just an added plus of using Posterous

If one thinks outside the box, one could also consider using FriendFeed to generate the news RSS feed. I have written in the past about libraries on Friendfeed, where libraries aggregate various social media accounts into one stream in Friendfeed. But besides viewing the stream in friendfeed, you can also acquire the RSS feed. Below you see the RSS feed of the FriendFeed account of Theunquietlibrary





FriendFeed has probably the richest feature set of any social media service out there, it can do most of what Posterous can do including the ability to post updates by email, and push updates to Twitter. But with the future of Friendfeed being uncertain after its acquisition by Facebook perhaps it's not worth considering.

Talking about Facebook, if your library has a facebook fan page, perhaps a logical idea would be to use Facebook itself to generate your news feed. I've haven't really researched how viable this idea is. However, Facebook is well known for being a "Walled garden", and in the past has being openly hostile against the idea but allowing their data to be exported outside Facebook. They might have changed their minds, but personally I would rather generate a RSS feed elsewhere that is going to work for sure and then pump it into Facebook, which seems to be something they are encouraging.

One other issue that I'm considering is whether any of these platforms allow you to create RSS feeds based on tags. This could be helpful say if you tag library news by
  1. Service outrages
  2. Library events
  3. Announcments of new resources
 and users could if they choose, just subscribe to any one or all.


I would add that as the RSS feed is generated from a third party site (wordpress.com, Blogspot, Posterous etc) rather than from your webservers, it means that if your servers go down, you can still send messages out! It does leave you vulnerable to third party service outrages though, but you can't have everything!


6. Calender apps


As many of the news your library will be broadcasting involves events (e.g. Library opening hours, library events), a somewhat interesting idea would be to use calender apps , of which Google calender is most famous (I would also strongly consider 30boxes).

I won't go through the steps, it's basically simply a matter of creating a calender, then adding events and timing. The most obvious thing then is to embed the whole calender on your webpage, and offer it to users to add to their calenders via ical. Below shows Dublin City Public Libraries, doing this on a netvibes page, while others have done so on a LibGuides page.




In fact you can even use this trick to allow events registration (via Google docs) in Google calendar!

But what if you want to offer this as a RSS feed and display it in a vertical text format only.


Below shows where to find the RSS feed (XML is basically RSS)




The main problem here is that withe default url given google calender displays RSS feed by the date you created the event, and not the date of the event itself!

After some study of the google calender API , I found that you can solve this problem by adding the following behind the url of the XML file given.


?orderby=starttime&sortorder=ascending&futureevents=true 

You don't have to be a programmer to guess that the first part in red sorts the events by start time of event (instead of publication date), the second part in blue sorts events in ascending order  and the last means it will only list future events and it will ignore past events.

Note: If you have a lot of events in advance and don't show all entries, there can still be issues

This basically gives you a nice feed events that you can use. Below I put the rss feed through feedburner (more on this later) and display the feed using built-in BuzzBoost widget, but you can use basically use any widget to display the RSS feed.






Clicking on the link will bring you to the full details








While this works fine for one off events, what if you are trying to show opening hours? You can of course do what the Jack Traver library does, add as an event the times the library is open and embed the google calendar

However, you probably don't want to use the method above to generate a RSS feed and display in a widget, because you will get an "event" every day!



Also this is a bit ugly, but I found this article "Using Google Calendar to Manage Library Website Hours", which will give you a nicely formatted calender, but it's really geeky as it takes some hacking on the server side to do this.


Burning feeds with Feedburner

@Digicmb suggested that regardless of what platform was used to generate the RSS feed, you should burn the feed using feedburner. This is a very important tip, as feedburner allows you to enhance the RSS feeds in many ways, least of which is the ability to view detailed statistics of number of subscribers, number of clicks etc.

Other benefits include the ability to customize the feed to add interactivity (Send to Email, Delicious, Share in Facebook etc appearing in the RSS feed), and you can use pingshot to speed up the updating of feeds etc.

Below, shows the pingshot option turned on.





Other issues - Speed?

Say I decided on using Posterous as the base platform to generate the RSS feed. I would then use one of the numerous RSS feed widget to display the feed on my webpage. RSS feeds aren't real time (unless enhanced with RSScloud or pubhubb I think) so when I update Posterous, the question is how fast is the new entry reflected on the webpage?

I tested by burning the feed via feedburner, turned on pingshot (which speeds up updates though I'm not sure if it helps here) and used the BuzzBoost option to create the RSS feed widget. Then I tested by posting a new entry. I didn't test it extensively but the delay time for the update to show up in the widget on the webpage ranged from 1 min to about 5 minutes, which was not too bad.

I did the same by removing an existing entry from the blog and it worked as well.

You can of course find numerous other RSS feed widgets, but I think using BuzzBoost is a safer bet because it's backed by Google, while most other widgets services can disappear any time.  I'm thinking also that feedburner offers a "email subscription" option and while RSS is much more powerful, most users probably are more familiar with email subscriptions, so that probably should be offered as well next to the widget.




 Below shows how the email subscription box might look like below the news feed


 

I'm still thinking of other issues that might crop up.  For instance, how many news feeds should be offered? Perhaps one events feeds for news that have dates (see 6. Calender apps) combined with a RSS feed generated by a blog for other events? One could display each feed separately in a different widget, or they would have to be combined first of course which isn't hard as there are dozens of services that merge RSS feeds, but this increases the complexity of the system by adding yet another intermediary in between.

NUS Libraries currently using a database driven system to post news, which has a couple of advantages, for example news can be set to auto-expire and disappear, which of course you can't just do with the methods mentioned above.


 













Saturday, March 13, 2010

Presenting using iPhone apps - My experience with MyPoint

Like most librarians, I give a fair number of presentations, so I did a bit of research on how to use my iPhone as a slide-changer remote.

This seems to be an example of a solution looking for a problem since I could just use the slide changer available in my library, but it isn't really. I'll explain later.


I'm not a mac user, so I can't use Keynote, but there are about half a dozen options for windows users, none of which are free. I was going to settle for iClikr (free if you have less than 15 slides), but  literally seconds before I purchased I ran into MyPoint, which is free and perhaps even better.


MyPoint is typical of apps of this nature. You install software on the computer you want the slides to run on. You then install the iPhone app on your iPhone, then use it to connect. Depending on the computer used and whether you are connected via the correct Wi-Fi network, you might need to VPN.

Open the slides on your computer and the app will display the slides on your iPhone, and you can then use your iPhone to drive the slides forward on the computer




The picture above, is the main reason why I use MyPoint. It not only shows the current slide, but the split screen also shows the next 3 upcoming slides.

I don't know about you, but this is a god send to me. One of my biggest problems presenting is remembering the slide order, or what comes next. Sometimes I change the slides so much (and at the last minute), it gets hard to remember which version I'm using.

Have you experienced this? You say or disclaim something dramatically, click on next slide, and oops.. it's another slide in-between you forgot!  Or you click next, and up pops a slide, that you forgot was there, and you didn't introduce it properly.

There is no such problem when using this app, since you can see at a glance what's next and time your slide transitions with perfection.



You can allow change to a notes view, so you can see the notes for each slide. A pity you can't have both! For instance, the current slide, notes and the next slide.

I seldom use this mode, but it can come in handy if you rely on your notes a lot.


You can also switch to pointer mode, as the above picture shows, you can control the cursor to point, but I find this a bit clumsy and the response time when moving the cursor might not be the best.If you need to, you can hold a laser point in one hand, and the iphone in another.

You might also notice that there is a horizontal scroll bar, below the slide. This is because the iPhone app does not show slide animations, so the scroll bar at the bottom reminds you that, when you go forward, it won't go to the next slide.



If need be you can also quickly scroll through all slides and go to any slide.

The app itself is free, though you can pay to access the "timer" option and the "marker" option. I bought the latter, which I found of little use, but it allows you to draw and scribble on the slides. You can probably guess what the former does.

So far I've used it only once, and it worked like a charm, slide transitions were smooth etc. In fact, on that day, I was really ill (I came just to do the presentation), so this helped me out a lot, since I didn't have to stress my memory when already ill!

So have any of you used MyPoint or similar apps for presentation? How was your experience?

Somewhat related to this , is presenting iPhone apps. Say your library develops a iPhone app, and you want to present it to a group of people in a lecture hall, what's the best way to do it? Is there anyway to project what your iPhone is showing to a computer?

So far, I've found a way that works only on a jailbroken phone, are there other ways?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Institution specific IPhone care packages?

Recently some of my coworkers have started to purchase Iphones and Itouches, and have asked me for help on how to setup their devices. 

The problem with the Iphone (and other smart devices) is that it's extremely flexible as it is basically a computer, and unless you are a techie, or enjoy playing around, for most users owning a smart-phone for the first time is pretty daunting and is similar in experience to purchasing a desktop PC for the first time and trying to figure out how to use it, or what to do with it.

Worse yet even if you take the effort to read about all sorts of general tricks and tips about use of Iphones in books on the topic, none of the information is institution specific.

For example, how do you connect your  Iphone to your work exchange mail server? 

This made me think, why not have a iphone care package of sorts, including information about institution specific settings for new Iphone users?

In fact I found many interesting tips and tricks scattered around the net that are specific to my institution ( most but not all of which are not official)  These include

  1.  How to connect your Iphone to NUS exchange mail server [here]
  2.  How to connect to the university's wireless network [here]
  3.  How to VPN [here]  
  4.  How to use LDAP with Iphone mail [here]
On top of that, other institution specific Iphone information should include I think

     5.   Institution specific apps , we have two both unofficial  [here]
     6.   List of university mobile friendly sites (including OPAC, databases, ebooks), QR codes (if used etc)
     7.   Location based services like Foursquare?

   
There are many academic libraries today that have invested or are investing heavily into mobile, they could collaborate with the  universities' computer centre on this project to promote and highlight their mobile services.

As it stands, my impression is that for most institutions, while some produce one-off "how to connect to wireless" type guides for smart phones, there is rarely anything beyond that.

In One iPod Touch per Librarian, Eric Rumsey proposes that libraries equip all librarians with iPod Touches. While this isn't particularly realistic, fact of the matter is as smart phones (including Iphones) become more common place, many if not most librarians will start owning one anyway. I'm betting within 2 years, the only phones you can get are smartphones anyway.

So perhaps this is the time to consider planning workshops for librarians or library users who want to get the most out of their Iphones.

What would be taught in such classes to librarians? Besides teaching the basics of usage of Iphones, perhaps one could cover also useful apps that extend functions that librarians already do


  • Apps for tweeting, facebook (e.g. Tweetie, Echofon)
  • Apps for instant messaging (e.g. IM+, Ebuddy, BeejiveIM)
  • Apps for file storage (e.g. Dropbox)
  • Apps for presentation - turning your Iphone into a slide remote  (e.g iClickr, Mypoint, Mbpresenter)       
  • Apps for searching, video live casting (e.g. Qik)

By supporting Iphone (and other smartphone uses), the institution can send a signal to users, that they are encouraged or even expected to use such devices, which will definitely increase usage of mobile surfing. Library staff would also feel more confident assisting users.

So anyone here already done what I mentioned here? If you have held a workshop on Iphones usage for librarians, what did you cover?

  

Monday, March 1, 2010

Scanning mentions of the library - Twitter, Google alerts & more

By now many corporations including libraries routinely scan for mentions of themselves on the internet. The number one free tool used is of course Google alerts, but with the rise of real time searches and microblogging, attention has turned towards scanning for Tweets.

In this post, I will share with you some of my experiences doing so called "environmental scanning"  using free tools.

The examples will be more impressive if I actually showed some real examples, but I felt that while such tweets are public, I am still  uncomfortable putting a spotlight on them, so I will not link to those tweets.

Your experience using the ideas here will vary depending on size of institution, penetration rate of Twitter etc .

For comparison purposes, NUS Libraries serves about 36K FTE (students and staff), and the most popular twitter account has over 500 followers. The official name is National University of Singapore libraries but is often abbreviated to just NUS Library or NUS libraries.




Tweet scanning

Many libraries now have Twitter account (more than 600 libraries), and use Twitter for diverse purposes including pushing out information to followers, as well as answering tweets sent directly to the account. But many librarians are also scanning for tweets about their libraries which are not directly address to them,  with the aim of collecting compliments and doing service recovery for complaints.


Google alerts are a lot faster these days in picking up tweets (used to be a lag time of months), but in my experience it's still unreliable, in any case, why not just go to the source and use the built-in Twitter search.

Talking about Google alerts vs tweet alerts, one thing I noticed is that scanning for tweets has a really low false positive rate compared to Google alerts. This makes sense, in a 140 character tweet, space is at a premium, any keyword appearing is obviously not incidental. 

By comparison google alerts pulls in lots of irrelevant hits, where say NUS and library is mentioned in passing on a long webpage.

After playing around with the Twitter search, you will notice that while it's pretty capable (you can use boolean operators), it doesn't do wildcards or truncation and unlike Google it's not smart enough to realise that "library" and "libraries" are different forms of the same root word.

Therefore tweets that say NUS libraries are not the same as tweets that say NUS library . So you should search for NUS libraries OR library . In fact, I recently realized that many   shorten library even further to lib , so perhaps NUS libraries OR library OR lib is more to the point!


Other terms you might want to scan for include librarian for obvious reasons. You can also scan for full names e.g. National University of Singapore libraries OR library but as you might expect this usually gets no hits (remember the 140 character limit means abbreviations are the norm).


Andrew Burkhardt the emerging tech librarian at Champlain College in Burlington, VT (I'm sure his google alerts will pick this up! ),  suggests we also scan for tweets with words, endnote, cite, research and  need AND book OR article OR books OR articles


I would add terms like database OR eresource OR journal OR catalogue (remember plurals are not automatically picked up) . If you have library branded names add those too. E.g we call our library catalogue LINC, our federated search is called Infogate


Of course it depends on your local situation, but so far for me, I find eresource and database being tweeted a few times (e.g complaining eresource is down, wondering what database to use for market reports), I've also gone with the broader book OR article OR books OR articles (without the word " need") There are a few false hits (people happy about getting paper published) but its not overwhelming. 

Incidentally, I had to split these searches into several different search queries rather than combining them all into one, because the maximum length of any twitter search is 140 characters,  


In all the above cases, I also do a AND NUS, so we are pretty sure we are talking about our books, articles etc.

But what if NUS (or your institution) is not mentioned in the tweet? 

I can think of two ways.

Tweet with geolocation scanning

As I mentioned in a blog post last year , tweets are starting to get geotagged, so one could do a search for the terms above and restrict it to tweets made within a certain radius of your library.

Just do near:"  longitude, latitude"  within:1km libraries OR library or lib OR librarian , this search query is surprisingly powerful. You can do the same for other search terms.

While not false hits, for me, the more general search (with institution name)  tend to alert on users who are doing checkins into foursquare and Gowalla (rare). So far, I haven't bothered to try to filter them out. (We have about 30-50 checkins per week in foursquare)


Tweet with scanning of users in a list

So far though, geotagged tweets are still rare as it is an option that needs to be turned on and not many clients support it yet, is there a third method to detect tweets about your library even though your institutional name isn't mentioned? This just recently occurred to me, if you know the person tweeting is from your institution, this provides yet another marker. 

So you need to create a list of all your users (say followers of your twitter account), then only scan those tweets for the required keywords. The only service I know of that does this is http://listimonkey.com/ , which sends an email alert (no RSS though).

I find quite a few tweets talking about the library (or libraries or lib) by users but aren't picked up as they don't mention NUS , are tweeted outside NUS, or are not geotagged. 

I've tried this to prove it works, and it works very well indeed, but I'm a bit uncomfortable with using this though, and have decided to stop this.

What do you guys think?

Given that you have 3 types of searches, Normal with institution name, Searches without institution name but exploit location of tweet and scanning by tweeter, you might wonder if there are a lot of duplicates.

Strangely, I don't notice that many duplicates (actually I just realized why). A interesting option is to filter tweets by "positive", "negative" or try to ask Twitter to detect if a Tweet is a question, but I'm not confident of the accuracy to try this. Besides the volume isn't that high yet anyway.



Google alerts vs Bing

I won't share much here, mainly because my approach is getting a lot of false hits, so I'm trying to figure this part out. I will add though Google alerts have one huge weakness, while they recently started to index Facebook pages (this is so new that a few days ago, a google search restricted to site:facebook.com gave zero results!), but not public status updates! 

Given the recent moves by Facebook to make status updates public by default, this means Google misses a big bunch of information! But is there a Bing alert? Turns out it didn't.
But I found this hidden trick, that allows you to convert any Bing search to a RSS feed. Simply do the Bing search you want and then add &format=rss to the end of the url!

You only want facebook results, so do a bing search site:www.facebook.com nus library , grab the url, and add &format=rss to the end of the url

Scanning of specific social media services - Plurk , Friendster etc

A somewhat minor trick is to use the social search engine Socialmention . This is a very powerful search engine that indexes most of the more popular and obscure social media services, and more importantly allows you to restrict searches to specific social media services, and generate a RSS feed from the search.

 I basically use this to monitor Plurk and Friendster , which is fairly popular here.

Real time or near real-time notifications 

So far, I talked about doing different searches and all the method allow you to generate RSS feeds directly (except http://listimonkey.com/ which is email only), but how do you put them all together?

So far, greatest successes at environment scanning came from users who were amazed at the speed of response. One user raved to his followers (who in term Retweeted to theirs, estimated reach of 3,000 ), about how we picked up on his ranting and within minutes fixed the problem.

This was possible only with real-time scanning via a Twitter client. I personally use TweetDeck which pops up alerts very quickly. The main problem here is that for some reason , Tweetdeck doesn't support searches that take into account locations. I tried a couple of popular Twitter clients, both web-based and desktop, and almost all had the same problem.


Anyone know of any twitter client that supports alerts of twitter searches with locations?

RSS feeds these days can be much faster with support of  pubsubhubbub (Google reader supports this)
or SUP (Friendfeed) , so maybe it isn't too bad.

There are many RSS feed readers out there, but I think GoogleReader and Friendfeed are both good choices, they allow you to store everything in one searchable place and both have mechanisms in place that supposedly allow "instant" RSS updates

GoogleReader has the advantage of greater support and a more certain future than Friendfeed, where a recent sale to Facebook has created lots of doubts of it's future.


On the other hand, Googlereader doesn't yet have a build-in service that automatically popups to alert you that a feed was updated , though no doubt addons exist that do this.


Here's how I do it.

First, I use Tweetdeck to pick up the normal tweets that aren't based on location, this is very fast within minutes (adjust the 

In addition, I setup a private Friendfeed group, toss all the RSS feeds into it including

  1. Tweets based on location, Tweets with institution name
  2. Google alerts in RSS feed
  3. Bing searches in RSS feed
  4. Social media in RSS feed
 I set it up to IM myself, so I get IM alerts when ever  any of the scans come up with something. And of course I have email alerts via http://listimonkey.com/ to detect relevant tweets based on person tweeting.

Overcomplicated? Maybe. But since doing this, I realize that our users are talking about libraries a lot (both positive and negative), sometimes a lot more than a simple google alert, or twitter search would indicate.



But is such scanning going too far? Sure the tweets and information are all public, but would users object if they knew libraries were doing such things? My impression is many users have a "there is so much stuff on the net, they won't notice me" mentality.... right until they realize organizations are doing such scans and searches.  

In any case, the aim of libraries in doing this is to be able to help and not to police users, so any users reading this should not be alarmed!

Thus far, twitter has helped to quickly detect problems (systems down) or enable librarians to proactively form help when needed (database needed for assignment) and seems to be worth the investment of time. What do you guys think?




Which of the following do you use to scan for mentions of your library on the web


How do you monitor your alerts for mentions of your library?

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