Feb 10

Weekend Links

A few bits and pieces that have crossed my browser in the past couple of weeks (though mostly sifted through yesterday).

The NoSQL (or LessSQL) movement has garnered a lot of attention over the past few months, but numerous people have pointed out that MySQL can be adapted to cover many of the most common use-cases. Flickr’s Kellan kicked off a series of posts on that topic with Using, Abusing and Scaling MySQL at Flickr and Richard Crowley responded with OpenDNS MySQL abuses. On the other side of the coin, Luke Melia has a write-up of how he uses Redis to build a “who’s online now list” and Sean Cribbs’ (fairly convincing) Why Riak should power your next Rails app is worth a read even if you’re not a ruby developer.

It’s good to see that the twitter engineering team have started blogging. They’ve also extracted and released the code they use to extract key terms from tweets (links, @replies, etc).

Thanks to Ajaxian I spotted Plupload – “a generic component that allows you to create a rich upload experience on the back of a variety of transports. Whether it be HTML5, Gears, Silverlight, Flash, BrowserPlus or normal forms, you can get an upload experience with drag and drop, progress, client side image resizing and chunking.” The file upload experience is one clients are constantly asking me to improve, so this could come in very handy.

There was a flurry of posts this week about whether web designers need to know HTML, with a number of good contributions. Elliot Jay Stocks kicked things off and I principally noted contributions from Mark Boulton and Rachel Andrew. It seems that the key is that designers need to understand the capabilities and constraints of the medium, and having a basic grasp of HTML and CSS is a quick route towards that, though as Mark points out there are plenty of others.

From Mobile World Congress comes a projection that “cell phone subscriptions [are] to hit 5 billion globally” this year, and 1 billion mobile broadband subscriptions. Another MWC announcement Vodafone’s launch of the “world’s cheapest phone” puzzled me. At $15 it’s $5 more than the phone I bought during our last trip to the US.

I use god on a number of servers to monitor the various moving parts of my apps. For the most part it does a good job and recent patches that squash a memory leak have been very helpful, but it sounds as if Bluepill might be worth a look as a possible alternative. Hugo Baraúna has written up a tutorial on monitoring delayed_job using it.

Jun 09

NPR Backstory: Using twitter to contextualise news

I really liked this story about the NPRbackstory twitter account. The panel at SxSW about newspaper APIs (which NPR was tagged onto) was one of the highlights, filled with promise, and it’s good to hear about a tangible (albeit experimental) use of one of those APIs to begin to contextualise breaking news.

All too often we lack the memory or the back-knowledge to appropriately interpret the stories that dominate the news (I was a little surprised and disappointed that the BBC stories about Khamnei’s comments on Britain didn’t note that “blame the British” is a common off-hand comment in Iran). News organisations often have vast resources that could help us develop some of that back-knowledge but they’re under-utilised. It’s rarely helpfully presented by web-based news outlets, but for a radio station it’s particularly hard to get that out. Twitter provides a nice way of passing on some tidbits and it’s great that NPR are using it for more than driving traffic to their very latest content.

Mar 09

Selected (belated, extended) Saturday Links

The past two weeks haven’t really left time to compile my selected links, though there have been many. A few days at SxSWi (on which more, later) followed by travelling with the family and the inevitable work backlog moved blogging way down the priority list. So here’s a mammoth selection to get me caught up. Particularly interesting has been the discussion around the future of newspapers (represented here by Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson and Russell Davies), which seem to have finally pushed beyond “how t ind a good business model for papers” to looking at where the real value for society lies and how we can preserve and extend that in a changing landscape.

Mar 09

Selected Saturday Links

Big themes this week have mostly revolved around twitter, facebook, and openness. Some have focussed on facebook redesigning to embrace a more twitter-like “web of flow” approach, and others on the fact that they’re jumping on various open web bandwagons. It’s been interesting to see some tie in with the government transparency thinking going around, as particularly noted by Chris Messina on FactoryCity. Meanwhile there are quite a few nice new tools emerging, and I really must try heroku one of these days.

Feb 09

Selected Saturday links

It’s always a little embarassing to realise that two or more consecutive blog postings are nothing more than a collection of links, but that’s the way it is at the moment. Busy-ness, illness and distractedness have all kept me from the blog this week. There aren’t any clear themes in this week’s links either. Chatter around OAuth has continued apace, as have musings about fuzziness, location, time, and the web (represented well by Matt Jones’ piece), but mostly this is the (to be) usual random assortment that have spent more than a few seconds open in my newsreader or web browser

Jan 09

Selected Saturday links

For quite a while I used del.icio.us to post summaries of interesting links here on an almost daily basis. After a while I got a little tired of the aesthetics of that: the clunky titles, the way it inserted tags, the fact that sometimes there was just one link and sometimes many. And I realised that for the quick/transient linking twitter works better.

So for now I’m going to try and post a digest every week or so, selecting the highlights. If you really want regular updates on what I’m keeping from what I’m reading, you can always follow me on delicious.

Jan 09

Tracking Heathrow with twitter

It's 11.23 on Thursday

A few months back—while we were discussing the number of talking objects appearing on twitter—Jenny pointed out to me that all Heathrow airport arrivals and departures data is online. That set my mind racing, as if you know all the flights leaving that currently controversial airport, there are all manner of things you could begin to do. Working out miles travelled and carbon emitted, spotting delays, and so on. But at the time it all came down to a quick note in Things to some day set aside time to explore.

That day arrived this week. The data turned out to be pretty simple to scrape, with a quick wrapper around hpricot, and to throw into an SQLite database using datamapper to give me a little abstraction and a place to throw a variety of methods to make my code simpler. And then it was a small matter of employing John Nunemaker’s twitter gem to set up regular tweets letting followers in on how many flights in and out of Heathrow there have been lately.

The result is a rather pleasing hourly summary, that adds a little rhythm and background awareness into my day. You can follow it at http://twitter.com/heathrowtower.

Perhaps the biggest frustration with the data is that all destinations/origins are given as city names. Given that city names are hardly unique, and even if they were a given city may have several airports connecting with Heathrow, that makes it a bit trickier to do some of the more sophisticated calculations. My hope is that the flight codes (which are given) can soon be transformed into a list of airport codes, which can then open up a route to more useful and interesting data. (if anyone knows of an existing database that does that mapping, please let me know!)

I’m looking forward to that, but I’m also anticipating the ambient awareness that having the bot running will create. Will the hourly ritual of seeing a sentence or two about Heathrow activity reveal any patterns? If they do, maybe I’ll update the code to make more of those. We’ll see.

For now, please do follow the tower on twitter, tell people about it, send it messages if you spot anything interesting, and feel free to take a look at the code over on github.

Sep 08

Greenbelt Social Media: What was different this year?

Greenbelt is an excellent conversationYesterday, responding to a post Steve wrote on our Social Media efforts at Greenbelt I noted that it’s important to remember that this wasn’t the first year we’d worked with social media at the festival. Flickr has been our most prominent outlet, with the festival’s tags being some of the most visible in the week following the festival for several years now. But as I’ve written about here in the past (from a fairly techie perspective), we’ve made efforts to aggregate content from multiple blogs, social bookmarking services, and the like a few times previously. So what was different this year?

As Steve points out, video is a significantly different medium to photos or text and it has its own set of hooks. This wasn’t the first festival video to be posted online—a few videos had snuck onto youtube in previous years—but it was the first time tools like qik were available to allow live streaming. As I noted a few days ago live streaming currently benefits from its novelty: “this is streaming live on the internet” is a great hook for drawing in guests and viewers. That may well not last, just as blogging has lost much of its mystique over the past six years, but this year it served us well.

The “embeddability” of the content is a very important factor. We’re all pretty used to embedded youtube videos at this point, but it’s only been in the past few months that its become the majority of media storage sites that have offered facilities along the lines of what Dan Hill dubbed ‘tear-off’ content. That’s significant in a number of ways. We didn’t have time to really develop the platform for what we were doing (we’d wondered about using Alfie‘s moblog platform but ran out of time) but we knew that if we used qik we could not only export the video later, but we could very quickly embed widgets into blogs and other sites to promote the content. That freedom from worrying too much about platform is liberating, but for achieving attention in a festival environment it’s the ease of embedding that’s key.

Twitter was, of course, a vital component of our strategy. Just as there was no time to build up a platform for aggregating the content, we didn’t have time or budget to do any real promotion, and since this was a very experimental approach we didn’t even have time to build it into the editorial content of the festival’s own website. But we’ve all got relatively large personal networks on twitter (and for some of us our twitter posts are syndicated into facebook) and we’ve been cultivating a Greenbelt twitter account and it was easy enough to post notes there. Whether posting automatically (“I’m streaming live on qik …”) or personally, we saw a very good response and were able to receive some quick feedback. Twitter works really well as a glue between pieces of content you’re generating around the web, acting as a hub for a network that will follow link and engage with content hosted in a variety of locations.

Perhaps the key non-techie reason that things felt different this year was that there was concerted effort from a team. The real turning point for our flickr presence was when we started posting the festival’s official photos there—it gave it a certain kudos for those festivalgoers who may have been reticent and meant we were promoting flickr heavily in our editorial—and similarly having a group of people establishing a body of content provided something resembling a critical mass. Since our online networks intersect fairly heavily there was some reinforcement (“oh, X and Y have both mentioned this, I should check it out…”) but there’s enough distinction that the message went wider than any one of our personal networks. As a team we were also able to exchange skills and discoveries through the weekend which helped enormously when we had so little time to get up and running.

In purely numeric terms flickr is still where the vast majority of social media attention around the festival rests, with views of the photos being an order of magnitude greater than of the videos. Much of the conversation is taking place among blogs, with many scattered posts picking up a few comments. It’ll be interesting to see whether video capture at the festival follows in the footsteps of flickr and attracts a much larger group of producers or whether it remains an activity of a fairly small group. Either way, we’re very pleased with how it worked out this year.

(photo above is by Jon McKay, from his ‘So What Do You Think?‘ project)

Aug 08

Greenbelt Social Media: Initial Thoughts

Greenbelt photo from flickrFor this year’s Greenbelt a group of us decided it was time to beef up the festival’s ‘social media’ output. With approval from the powers-that-be, the help of some phones from Nokia and the energy that comes from a festival’s buzz, we built up a twitter community, streamed plenty of content live to qik, and enjoyed the fact that the festival’s flickr presence now has a momentum all its own (the official photos had over 100,000 views in the past week and there are over 3600 photos tagged greenbelt2008 as I write this).

One of the perennial questions facing those planning the festival’s online presence is what audience there is when 20,000 of those most committed to the event gather together for a weekend of camping. During the ten years the event’s been at its current site we’ve gradually extended the wifi coverage to more and more of the site, but it’s still far from comprehensive and largely provided just for those who are helping make the festival run rather than available to all. Times are changing as more and more of us have access to EDGE and 3G from our mobiles, but power outlets are in short supply and its not yet possible to get through four days of intensive use without charging up your phone.

Using twitter was a simple decision, though the timing was poor as they turned off their UK SMS service just days before the festival, so it became much less effective as an on-site co-ordination tool. Nevertheless, the greenbelt twitter account continues to pick up followers (its existence seems to have introduced a number of new people to twitter, judging by the number of people for whom it was the first twitter account they followed) and we’re excited to see how it can be used over the course of the year to sustain and build the festival’s disparate community.

Thanks to WOM World/Nokia we had a set of N82s (and one N95) to experiment with qik and between Steve Lawson, Lobelia, Mike Radcliffe and myself we produced several hours of video content, largely streamed live. As time was tight, we focussed primarily on our personal networks for promotion and a qik group to collect it. During the festival the videos had around 3,000 views and the total is now up over 6,000, which didn’t seem at all bad with so little promotion. More than that, there’s been some great feedback suggesting that the quality of engagement is high.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the project was the response from those we were filming and interviewing. So many people were happy to stop for an interview and were fascinated by the technology and the possibilities, particularly the fact that with qik we could get live feedback on the filming and, though we didn’t use it to its full potential, adapt the content based on that feedback.

There are lots of lessons to be learned, and I’m just getting started on wrapping my mind around it so that we can refocus for next year and transmit that knowledge more widely. Naturally, the rest of the thoughts will appear here as soon as they’re ready. And of course, keep an eye on the twitter feed for news from Greenbelt.

(photo above courtesy of the greenbelt flickr stream)

Jun 08

How to use twitter?

I was pleased a few months back to see Calvin College sign up for twiter. A small college in the Michigan town where I lived for three years up until last summer, the college is my wife’s former employer, a previous client of mine, and a place that dominated quite a bit of our social life in Grand Rapids. Twitter seemed a simple way to keep up with what was going on without much effort. But within a couple of months I stopped following them, partly out of frustration with some recent political developments on the campus but primarily because their twitter presence felt far too much like an anonymous broadcast, and close to an abuse of the medium.

It’s an example I’ve had on my mind while pondering the possibilities for official twitter usage at Greenbelt. Twitter is easy to use as a broadcast medium, and (recent stability concerns aside) works very well for getting messages out quickly to those who choose to hear them, but to treat it solely that way fails to engage with the realities of how it’s used, or the set of expectations that have emerged within the community of its users.

There are contexts in which a broadcast-only approach can work. The automated twitter feeds for things like Tower Bridge and Low Flying Rocks are quite understandably just broadcasting updates. They represent inanimate objects and are simple prototypes of how a system like twitter can change the way we interact with such objects. At the same time the way that the Mars Phoenix twitter account has been used has been fascinating, making use of the fact that there are human intermediaries involved to engage with its audience and answer questions.

Barack Obama‘s account has been broadcast-only so far. I find that far more understandable as a campaign schedule of the sort he lives within doesn’t make engagement easy, but also a little disappointing as that aspect of politics desparately needs more interaction and transparency. The Downing Street account occasionally offers responses and it’d be good to see that from the Obama team, along with some information on how Obama’s tweets come to be. Are they along the lines of John Edwards‘ which I’m told were approved in communications team meetings but sent by the candidate himself, or is there some other process/person making it happen?

I’ve been enjoying the Channel4News offering lately. That too has yet to respond to any of its followers (so far as I’ve seen), but the slightly irreverent tone of some of the posts really helps give some insight into how their editorial process works, how things shift through the day, and the fact that they don’t take themselves entirely seriously.

The recent Innovation Edge conference and Social Innovation Camp made pretty good use of twitter. In the former case it was entirely focussed on the day of the event, but modelled good interaction between official-tweeter and those in the audience also using twitter. What it was lacking was some transparency: it wasn’t until after the event that it became clear who was posting on behalf of the event. SI Camp has continued to operate, and it’s a good way to keep up with the thinking and projects that have stemmed from the camp. At the event it offered a really good communications channel, identifying different groups’ needs and interesting comments, but since then it’s not been clear if it’s a personal account or entirely focussed on the followup to the event. Some clarity there would be helpful.

Obviously any high profile use of twitter shouldn’t be expected to respond to every message sent its way, but setting expectations and demonstrating some engagement with the conversation is vital for any user whose tweets aren’t entirely automated. Establishing transparency by identifying who is actually doing the posting is very helpful, whether per post (eg. “(from @jystewart)”) or simply in the bio (“with posts of official news, gathered by X, Y and Z”). And it’s probably best to be flexible, and adapt an approach based on how followers respond, just as twitter itself was adapted in response to the community’s use of @replies.