Sunday, June 21, 2009

Free Twitter updates via SMS (Singapore only) via Sgbeat

Okay, I know a large number of readers of this blog are international visitors but I just had to post this local piece of news.

As every seasoned Twitter user in Singapore knows, while one can update his Twitter account via SMS, since October 2008, one cannot get sms updates via Twitter (not for free anyway).

Savvy Singaporean Twitter users know of services like TweetSG and Widgeo, which allows you to sms a Singaporean number instead of the international number. But unfortunately, there is no way to get updates from Twitter via SMS.

No way until now at least. Enter SgBEAT . On the surface SgBEAT looks kind of pointless, it's a Twitter clone set up for Singapore with perhaps one extra feature the ability to send pictures via MMS.

It also includes one interesting feature for Singapore users, it allows you to receive free sms @s and dms sent to SgBEAT.






Okay but even that doesn't sound too exciting since not many people are on SgBEAT. But the recently released Twitter reverse link (which I was fortunate enough to get to trial before hand ), means that if anyone on twitter sends you a reply, or dms you it will not only be reflected on sgbeat, but you will also be sent an sms!

You will need to link your Twitter account to your sgbeat account first of course, when it's done, anything you post on Twitter will go to sgbeat and vice-versa. But more importantly, you get sms alerts when someone replies to you or sends you dm from either Twitter or SgBEAT!

Obviously, from the library point of view, it has the potential of becoming a cheap SMS reference service tool. Once setup, a user can tweet @nuslibraries via sms, and when nuslibraries replies via DM or @ , the reply will be pushed to the user's phone via sms.

It's not as good as NLB's SMS reference service but it's free. :)

Incidently at least one of the the founders of Sgbeat is a current student of my institution National University of Singapore. :)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

An information dashboard for your library service points (II) - Using Netvibes and FriendFeed

First, a look at the final product.




Recently, I have being thinking about how information flows in a large organization, including libraries.

In my last post, I talked about two methods in which one could quickly aggregate critical information that are sent internally in libraries by email to a "information dashboard" (I note with embarassment that I'm probably misusing this term) .

I noted that sending mass emails to everyone's inbox was not a good idea, because people might just miss the email. Wikis would be an answer, but it is unrealistic to expect wikis to be updated instantly upon being sent an email, and there was a need to keep track of such emails to ensure that the wiki was being updated.

My idea was to forward the email to a service that would accept input from emails and aggregate the result in a nice format. Further more, one would then pull that information and other useful information via RSS into various services such as Netvibes, Igoogle, etc. The librarian would then consult that page when on duty at service points. The first solution (using Individurls) looked like this.






The more I thought about it, the more i realized this wasn't a particularly good idea, because RSS feeds can take 20 minutes to update and the whole idea was to be updated in as near-real time as possible.

Was there a real-time alternative? I looked at XMPP, SUP but it was too difficult.

I did talk about Friendfeed in my last post , on how one could send an email and it would update friendfeed, but I suggested that people refer to the page at the start of duty and then either refer to that page constantly or install FriendFeed Desktop notifer to be informed of new posts.

But I missed the obvious, elegent solution! Why not embed the real-time widget Friendfeed offers into Netvibes, Igoogle?

To recap, here's my idea.

1. Set up a special Friendfeed account for internal use for the library and keep it private.

2. Then as per instructions in my last post, forward critical emails to that account so it would be updated with latest news

3. Now embed the real-time widget into Netvibes, Igoogle, etc.

4. Then add any other useful widgets to that page and use it at the service desk.

It works really well, when I mean real-time, it really means that. Send an email from a registered account to a certain email address or update Friendfeed directly and it updates on Netvibes page instantly without reload!

To do so, log-in to your Friendfeed account. Select "tools", then "embeddable widgets" , scroll down and click "Real-time widget". Or go to this link

If lots of librarians in your organization use Friendfeed, you might one to embed a Friendfeed group (formerly room) instead. If no-one has their own Friendfeed account, they can still use friendfeed to communicate (they will all be using the same account, more than one can be logged in from different locations to the same account), but you can't tell who is saying what, since it all comes from the same account. A group gets around that problem.




I can't really talk highly enough about using Friendfeed this way, as it's really flexible. If you don't want to look at the netvibes page or the friendfeed page, you can setup to be updated via IMs, emails, RSS , Facebook, Iphone or download their own Friendfeed notifer. You can also update friendfeed using email, IM.

So it is suitable for librarians who have different comfort levels for technology from the geeky librarian who is god at Librarian2.0, to those who just use email.

Of course, when you use AJA startup pages like Netvibes you can be as creative as you one and add widgets to centralize all kinds of information needed by a Librarian at a service point.

Some very basic ideas.


1. Search widgets

I prefer to use OpenSearch plugins in my browser to quickly search commonly used services, but for people who don't have this habit, you can provide simple search widgets using the method I blogged about here on how to create almost any search widget with no programming or scripting skill required. For me, I'm thinking of adding search widgets to search our internal wiki for policy, telephone directory of my University etc.






2. Twitter, Meebome/Meebo room widgets

If your organization uses Twitter/Meebo or any web-based chat widget either for internal or external use, you can embed widgets for those.





3. RSS feeds

Though these do not update instantly, it does not hurt to add them. I add our own external blogs, news page etc.

One could also add the rss feeds to the Friendfeed account of course, but I personally prefer to leave the friendfeed account clear except for critical information sent through email.




4. Other widgets

I'm sure there are tons of interesting widgets one could add.

Though one can use the friendfeed widget to communicate, probably that isn't the best use.

For simplity, I like the webnote widget from Netvibes for instance.Then one could quickly leave notes to the next officer at the desk. Perhaps even better would be something that provides real-time collobration , etherpad , googledocs or better yet the coming Google wave!




Another obvious idea you could also add online calenders, those using ical, google calenders etc.




Acknowledgements


Haven't quite worked out the logistics, but using Netvibes, one can share the page with several different Netvibes accounts, or one can share each widget, so each librarians can customize their own Netvibe pages they want to use at the service points. Other librarians who don't want to, can just use the default.

I've always being remiss in acknowledging where my ideas come from, in this case, I believe my idea was inspired from real-time blogging with Friendfeed . Also I remember seeing either a Tweet, or throw away comment by someone about using Netvibes for librarians at service points, but try as I might I can't find it. My thanks to both for their creative ideas.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An information dashboard for your library service points (I) - Using email, RSS and FriendFeed

Librarians are often overwhelmed by the mass of fast moving information they need to keep track of. Particularly in large libraries for librarians manning information desks, keeping up to date with the latest changes in policy and instructions is often a challenge.

One can use Wikis, or tools like Etherpad to manually update a "news page" or to make changes to the documentation, but often the latest changes and news is propagated through email from top management who are too busy to update the wiki. You also don't want to update the wiki with something that is of short term utility and won't apply after a week.

In the past, I used to just move these emails into a "policy" folder but that was unwieldy. Not to mention the fact that I would often miss such emails among the crowd of other emails in my inbox.

Creating a information dashboard

A natural idea here is to try to create a information dashboard for librarians manning information desks that puts essential information at one place.

It seems to me that the information dashboard would serve 2 purposes

(1) Providing fast access to commonly used resources (e.g. common search widgets, lists of phone numbers etc)

and

(2) It would bring together data about the latest changes in Library policies, things to take note of etc.

In this blog post, I'm more concerned with (2) - a future post might address (1). What is the most effective and efficient way to manage such information? The idea here is to setup something that is light weight, easy to use for all librarians of different skill levels. Ideally they would scan this information dashboard before they started their duty to remind themselves of the latest information.

One would of course set up desktop widgets using Google desktop, Yahoo! widgets etc on the computer used at the service point, but that would not be a very simple solution. You can also have a poor's man desktop widget using Active Desktop (Windows XP) , an idea I might cover in a future post.

The other option would be to use web-based startpages like Netvibes, Pageflakes or Igoogle etc. The idea is simple of course, get the updates you need in RSS, and then feed it into the start page.

You could get the RSS feeds of your news portal (or do screen scraping if required), calender events etc (ical to rss) and put it into whatever startpage you like.

Some other odd ideas, how about pulling in your internal Twitter accounts used for communication , so one can leave messages for whoever is taking over next?

In this blog post, instead of using the usual suspects such as Netvibes, I used Individurls - a service that displays RSS feeds. There are other choices but I chose it because of its simplicity and elegent displays.


Email to RSS

Okay it's obvious what to do with RSS feeds and you can feed news sources if they come in RSS, but what about emails?

My institution has access to Confluence Wiki, a enterprise level wiki which allows you to generate RSS feeds of any page, including "news" pages and "mails" pages.

What "mails" does is that you set up a POP/IMAP account with Confluence wiki, and any emails sent to that email account will be posted on the Wiki.

From there, one can then generate a RSS of that mails page and pull it into Individurls (or any RSS reader or display widget). If your wiki is password protected you will need to set up your RSS feed with the user name and password string.

So all you need to do is to tell people who want to send important internal mail to cc that email address, and the information there will be automatically posted.

Here's how it will look like.





No access to Confluence Wiki, or any Wiki that has this feature? You can try services like MAILtoRSS , or any service that accepts input in emails but can output in RSS such as Posterous. I'm sure there are others.

One thing that concerned me was the delay involved. While the email to RSS portion seems to be negligible , RSS feeds takes a while to update (and even more delay if you need to do screen scraping). I did some testing and it can take about 10-20 minutes to update via RSS.

I tried using Pingshot service from Feedburner (similar service is Pingoat.com and more here), which speeds up updates to selected services, including MyYahoo! . MyYahoo! incidently allows you to display RSS feeds so one can burn feeds using Feedburner, turn on the Pingshot service and plug the resulting RSS feed into MyYahoo! In theory, this should speed up RSS updates. But it was still slow to update in my testing.


Using FriendFeed to create a information dashboard

How about using Friendfeed? It is already set up as an aggregator of feeds and unlike RSS feed readers it displays images too. On top of that, the page autoupdates in real-time, so you can keep it open and watch without reloading.

You can also update FriendFeed using email and that will show up immediately on the Friendfeed page.

First register/update the email addresses you will be updating Friendfeed with (you can add more than one). From the registered account, you then send an email to share@friendfeed.com, and "The subject becomes your entry title and anything in the body of the email is posted as a comment. You can even attach a photo to be included in your post".





You can also, install the FriendFeed Desktop notifer, which will pop up whenever it receives something new.




This gives you both a page listing the recent changes, as well as instant updates via a popup.

Sadly you can't do anything about information that is aggregated on Friendfeed via RSS as that will still have its normal delay(though there are solutions like simple update protocol (SUP) that speed up updates for supported services like Disqus and Backtype) ,

One way of working

When you start duty at the service point, you go to the Friendfeed page to refresh your memory about the latest news. The information there will be updated in near real time if it is pushed via email. You can continue to monitor that page, or you can just rely on the FriendFeed Desktop notifer to update you instantly of any other changes that occur while you are on duty.

Once a month, someone reviews all the news and decides which ones if any, should be updated in our Wiki.

I suspect that there are better ways , cleverer ways to do this by chaining several services, but all this might be moot, as Googlewave might just blow them all away. :)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Adding your library catalogue results next to Google?

Despite talk about Google-killers such as , semantic web engines , real-time search and social search and social media search engines (e.g. oneriot , Social Mention,WhosTalkin?) , "Fact engines" like Wolfram Alpha when it comes down to it, the instinctive first response of anyone (including many librarians) when looking for something is to Google it, and this isn't likely to change for years.

Libraries have tried to handle the Google dominance in several ways. In one of my first posts I talked about the use of searchplugins, bookmarklets, custom toolbars (Libx, Conduit) , smart keywords that allow users to do searches of library resources without visiting the library portal.

That is good, but it is still limited. Even with such tools available, and a Google search fails, the user needs to acquire the habit of copy and pasting the search into the search bar, click on a bookmarklet etc. Or more likely they would go with whatever Google gave and do not even bother to compare with what they could find in the library.

The same problem lies with tools that require you to highlight terms, right click and select engines from the context menu. An evolution of these tools would be IE8's web accelerator (library examples?), KallOut, Headup, and Mashlogic . True, all you need to do is highlight a term on the page and it will automatically create a popup bubble on the page with the information (see example below using KallOut)



But you still need effort to highlight and right click.

A better approach?

So what is easier? Simple, display the results next to a Google search automatically!

This idea came to me when playing with the greasemonkey script that shows Twitter search results on top of Google results.



There's also a very similar one for OneRiot here.

I then started to notice that many commercial search engines with the same idea.

Twoquick.com - search interface that combines Twitter and Google results.




Wolfram Alpha Google - Firefox add-on that displays Wolfram alpha results next to Google




Google Enhancer - Trueknowledge - TrueKnowledge is a search engine similar to Wolfram alpha, this firefox add-on will display any relevant results (if any) next to Google search results.





OneRiot on Google (WebMynd) - Firefox plugin - This uses the WebMynd plugin, more about that later.

How about adding your Library catalogue results?

I really wish the usual library vendors providing our libraries with software could give us something similar. Imagine a federated search solution that provided a plugin that overlays results along side google results whenever one searched Google.com, Yahoo.com etc. I bet you access to library resources would sky rocket!

Lacking that, is there any simple hack one could do to achieve this?

I investigated the possibility of doing the same for Library catalogue results (subscribed electronic resources would be another really interesting idea).

In the end I saw three possible options.

Using Opensearch


It is possible to use something like A9's OpenSearch Client , to create column of results for each opensearch search. Or at least it was in the past. I can imagine hacking up something similar with basic javascript, and output the results in frames.

Using Greasemonkey + JSON Output

Another idea would be to adapt the greasemonkey script that shows Twitter search results on top of Google results. For that to work though, your catalogue should be able to output results in JSON. Unfortunately not many catalogues do this yet, I found one but unfortunately lost the url.

Many library catalogues *do* output search results in RSS. A very ugly hack, I could imagine that might work would be to use a RSS to JSON REST service to convert it to JSON and use that.

Using WebMynd

One could also follow OneRiot's lead and use WebMynd. This is a plugin (Internet explorer and Firefox) that adds results from various sources such as Wikipedia, Scridb, Twitter, Google books etc next to Google and Yahoo results (see below).



WebMynd also includes a optional recorder function that saves every page you visit (screenshot and/or htm) allowing you to search through them.

Out of curiosity, I contacted them and inquired about the possibility of adding library catalogue results. Apparently they can use Data scrapping methods to get the results, but only for a fee . If you can guarantee a certain number of installs in systems you control, you can possibly get it for less or free.

I did notice one quick and dirty way that find work. WebMynd, shows results from "My Top sites".

These are the most common domains that WebMynd recorder saves while you are browsing. WebMynd will then displays results from those domains.

A obvious idea would be this. Install WebMynd, turn on recording and visit only your library opac domain. Then you turn off the recording, so your library domain is a "Top site".



Then when you do a search, results from that "top site" will appear. Unfortunately, I could get it to work only for WorldCat results (see below).




The reason seems to be this, the results are drawn from sites that have being indexed by Yahoo. Unfortunately most library catalogue results are not indexed by common search engines like Yahoo or Google (so called invisible web), and as such if you try the same trick for any opac site, it comes up with nil.

Another drawback is that the Worldcat results are also not "real time" results, they are whatever was in the index the last-time Yahoo spidered the site.

My technical skills are limited, I would love to see if someone could get the ideas here to work, or come up with better ideas.

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