Saturday, November 12, 2011

Using IFTTT for alerts in libraries

As mentioned in my last post, I recently presented at the online Library 2.011 conference. Talking a little about how we scan the net for mentions of my library , the results of such scans and how, when we actually respond and reactions of users.

The talk is archived

I've written many times on this blog about the techniques , most lately here on location based scans  , where I found out a technique which work better than the default twitter search syntax, so this talk was more about the results (e.g how many are positive compliments etc) and when and how to respond.

To backtrack, there are 3 ways to figure out if a tweet is about your library.

1. If the  tweet contains the keyword (e.g NUS Library)

2. If the tweet contains keyword (e.g. Library)  and is within say 1 km of your library

3. If the tweet contains keyword (e.g. Library)  and is from people you can identify as your user

The false positives for all 3 techniques varies, but I suspect the techniques are listed such that false positives increase from #1 to #3.

While preparing the presentation, I noticed that the third technique which is used to scan user lists , was a topic on which I did not blog about yet. My last post on the subject did mention it briefly but for the sake of completeness here's how.

It involves the use of the relative new service IFTTT, so let's talk about it first.


It stands for If this, Then That. It allows you to setup certain "Triggers" and when those events happen , ifttt will do something. So for example, I have set up a IFTTT task such that whenever I post a photo to Facebook, it will notice and post the photo to dropbox as well.

It's really flexible you can link to lots of services called channels including Facebook (including pages),boxcar, Twitter, Dropbox, diigo, delicious, pinboard, evernote, posterous,wordpress, tumblr, instagram, Flickr,Youtube, Vimeo, Foursquare, any rss feed and more, as well as to traditional channels like phone, IM, email, Sms etc.

For each channel, there are a variety of triggers and possible actions.

Below show the channels currently available.

When you think about it, this is the essence of coding/scripting really, but IFTTT allows those of us who are not so technically inclined to do some of this.

Librarians have not been slow to notice this new tool, for example Gary Green has some interesting ideas for library use including a very interesting post  It’s Raining – Twitter Says Get To The Library , which involves triggering tweets based on weather reports feeds and if it is say cold tweet "What a cold day today! Be sure to wear warm clothing before heading out to library" or something to that effect. See also Swiss Army Librarian's post.

For me one major use is for alerting services.

Essentially you setup a trigger or a condition that must occur , and then an action will occur, which could be anything from getting an email, IM, SMS, phone push notification (via Boxcar) or even a call!

Alerting on tweets from groups of people with a certain keyword

With the variety of channels, I can think of many many uses for alerts, but in the context of this post, we want a trigger where the tweet includes "library" and is from a defined list of users, typically a Twitter list.

While Twitter is one of the channels and there is a variety of Twitter trigger you can use (including twitter mentions, favourites, searches etc), it cannot trigger based on Twitter lists.

For that we use the Feed channel. IFTTT can trigger only if a feed includes a keyword which is exactly what we want.

To recap here's are the steps

1. Identify all your users and put them in a list. Example, put all the followers of your library account into a list.

2.Get the rss feed of the twitter list see here

3. Sign into IFTTT, then create a task by clicking on this , then using Feed channel

4. Select New Feed Item matches

5. In Keyword or phrase enter library

6. In Feed URL paste the RSS feed from #2

7. Click on THAT

8. Then select any action channel , including Boxcar, email, Google talk, Phone, SMS etc depending on how you want to be alerted. I currently like using sms option. It's one of two services I know of that allows unlimited sms alerts for free outside US (the other is Google Calender)

That's it.


I am really just scratching the surface of what you could do with IFTTT, but even in terms of alerts, you can do plenty of things. To be even more specific, let's consider IFTTT's ability to do keyword filtering of RSS. While RSS feeds seem to be going out of fashion with services like Twitter and Google trying to hide them, a RSS feed filter is still very useful. IFTTT is not the only or first one to allow this (see a past blog post on a even more complicated bayesian filtering system of RSS feed), but the ones I have tried in the past have been unstable, unreliable but thus far IFTTT's seem to be working well.

For example, my university as a events calender available in RSS feed format but no way to subscribe just to say events by libraries. I use IFTTT this alert on those.

You could do the same for RSS feeds from table of contents of journals etc.

Do note that RSS feeds are usually not instant (some update every couple of hours), while IFTTT itself polls every 15 mins adding to the delay a little. Also it's unclear when this service will start going paid...

Any of you using IFTTT? Would love to hear how you are using it.

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