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.

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. 🙂

Mashup your Library’s Twitter, Flickr, Youtube, Facebook accounts!

I’ve being thinking about how libraries can mashup their Twitter, Flickr, Youtube and other web 2.0 accounts and display them using cool visualizations.

Visualization on screensavers

Initially I toyed with the idea of displaying rss feeds using screensavers. Software such as Nuparadigm’s RSS screensaver, RSSmore , , RSSsaver and more do this.

Since Twitter can be pushed out as a RSS feed, you can display them as a screensaver on library owned machines. You can of course add more than one feed, so you can add your blog feeds, or from any service that allows RSS feeds as output (or aggregate them all using Friendfeed and use the feed there as an output).

This is a light weight option that works well. But as cool as the visualizations and effects are, they only do text, so if you want to show off your Youtube videos or Flickr pictures, this isn’t ideal

Next, I investigated web-based services.

Visible Tweets

With the twitter craze out there, services such as Visible Tweets (see movie below) , Twitterverse (now down) , provides cool visualizations of Twitter tweets. The main problem with them was the same as before, they only do Tweets, you can’t include pictures or videos.

Example using unquietlibrary(Creekview High School Library) as a keyword

Twitter Fountain

I also came across Twitterfountain (see below)

This is a tool used at conferences that allows mashingup of Tweets and images from Flickr. As such it will pick up every tweet that is tagged with a chosen keyword. The background displayed will be pictures tagged with another chosen keyword.

In the example above, I chose “unquietlibrary” (Creekview High School Library, a library that has being very progressive with regards to the use of Social media) as the keyword. While this works fine for picking up tweets and flickr pictures uploaded by the user account unquietlibrary, it will also pick up other Tweets and Flickr pictures by other accounts which tag flickr pictures using the same keyword, or Tweet using the keyword.

This is good for conferences when you want to allow any user to contribute, but this is not a good idea if you just want to display tweets or images from your account only.

Finally, I came across possibly the best solution – Flotzam!

Flotzam

Flotzam mashups up Flickr, Twitter, Youtube, Digg , Facebook and RSS feeds and will display not just text but also images and videos.

Better yet you can choose to display by user and/or by tags/keyword. For our use, we will just want to restrict results from our account, rather than by keywords.

For Twitter you can even view the tweets of a user and all his friends.

You can also add Facebook accounts, though you need to log-in first. I tried using my Facebook account but it produces strange random results, like pictures of my friends? More testing needed for this.

You can also change various settings with regards to how many notices you see at the same time etc.

There are 4 themes out there, and they are all seriously cool! So much so I embed all 4 videos using the 4 themes below. Examples are from my library and the unquietlibrary.

Even better is if you can get Tetris Flotzam working (below).

Unfortunately for me, it crashes whenever I try to change the settings.

Do note that flotzam is quite a memory hog, and you need to have quite a powerful system and requires .Net 3.5 framework SP1 installed.

One thing that I didn’t address is this. While all this is cool, what practical use can you put this too? Many libraries have large LCD plasma flat screens at various points in the library which they use to display notices (my library uses a looping powerpoint display). Seems to me Flotzam could be used on these displays, perhaps interspersed with the usual notices.