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.


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.

Make library search widgets with Widgetbox, Clearspring and netvibes

In my last post, I showed you three different ways you can create a portable web search widget for almost any arbitrary database you want. My preferred method used only simple Javascript with no other requirements and allowed you to generate a basic search box that you can put on any webpage.

In most cases you can just copy and paste the code to any webpage that accepts html and it will usually work. But what if you want to move it to a startup page like igoogle or netvibes? Or make it into a Bebo or Facebook application? Or even convert it into a Vista gadget, Google desktop gadget or Yahoo! widget to put on the desktop? Even Mac users are not left out! All these require the widget to be written in quite different formats.

This is where Widget distribution platforms come in. They allow you to upload Widgets in one form and then allows you to offer to users the same widget in different formats with one click.

Widget from Clearspring

Examples include Widgetbox (pro version exists), NetVibes, Clearspring, iWidgets, Sprout (not free). Also see Popfly and Dapper .

Many of them also provide analytics, tracking the number of users who have embeded the widget. This is of course important for measuring the impact of widgets.

Statistics from Clearspring showing usage

Such services also provide ease of use, in many situations the user doesn’t even have to copy and paste the code, also he needs to do is to click on the version he wants and it will be automatically linked to the account and added with a few clicks. For instance, one can quickly add a widget to one’s blogger sidebar with a few clicks.

In this post, I will talk about using Widgetbox, Clearspring and NetVibes to distribute the javascript web search widget we created in my last post. The others mention before require that you input the widget in Flash format or from a RSS feed (Dapper) and hence cannot be used as we are starting from javascript.


I’ve also embedded this widget (created using Widgetbox) in a sidebar at the bottom right of this blog.

Widgetbox is a very powerful and useful Widget maker, that allows you to input your Widget starting from a Widget made from Javascript/html, Flash, a remote widget or as a Google Gadget. If you don’t have a widget at all, you can create one out of RSS feeds, producing a widget that displays the content of the RSS feed.

In this instance, based on the Javascript from the previous post, we can obviously choose the Javascript/html option. Alternatively, using the remote widget option one can upload a webpage of the web widget onto a server and point the widget there.

Steps to create a widget using Javascript/html option

1. After registering, log-in and click on “make a widget”

2. Select html/Js option

3. Select blank widget, name the widget and click “continue”.

4. Copy and paste the html you used to create a web search widget into “Widget code” section

Two notes about the javascript code. If you link to any site, make sure you ensure the link will open in a new window (see example). Also any images should be uploaded to a server and then linked to with the full path.

5. Click “apply changes”

6. On the same page adjust the size of widgets in widget settings

7. Check “ Developer Agreement,Content Guidelines. ” and press “Save widget”.

8. The next screen allows you to further test, edit your widget, check analytics (how often your widget is downloaded) etc. But for now just click on submit to gallery.

9. Fill in as many details as you wish and then submit to gallery and you are done!

Alternatively, you could upload the widget as a webpage, then select “Remote widget” and insert the url. For example you can use this.

Use of Widgetbox is pretty straight forward, there isn’t really much to say beyond that. Once imported into Widgetbox, one can export to Blogging platforms (e.g. Blogger, Typepad,Facebook), Social networking sites (Bebo, Ning) Startup pages (e.g. netvibes, igoogle, Pageflakes) . All user needs to do is click on “Get widget”


A sample of this widget created using Clearspring can be found here

Clearspring is almost identical to Widgetbox. Clearspring however allows you to insert your widget into even more places from including Facebook application, Yahoo! widget etc.

This post is already very long, so I won’t go into details on how to use Clearspring, but it’s very similar to Widgetbox. You can use the following webpage as a template.


A sample of this widget created using Netvibes can be found here

Another widgetmaker you could try is NetVibes. Converting to NetVibes widgets is a bit more complicated and requires that you put in certain extra tags to comply with their UWA (universal Widget API). The documentation is here.

If this looks too scary for you, you can take a look at the example I created here. I myself modified it from the following example created by Guus Van Den Brekel from here. Just edit the appropriate fields, replace the javascript and it will work.

NetVibes is actually worth the trouble because it allows you to add widgets to Opera, Apple Mac OS X dashboard and Vista gadget which covers two of the major desktop widget formats.


Much of what I shown is still experimental, and you can spend a lot of time tweaking, customizing the look and feel. That’s all for now.

Aaron Tay