It’s almost 10 years since I began producing and consuming data feeds, initially in RSS format. Although I regard the syndication of data feeds, in general, as a transformative technology, the concept still makes no sense to civilians and has little or no effect on their lives.
In order to understand why not, and as a way of figuring out how to motivate a practical understanding of syndication, I’m tackling a problem whose solution doesn’t involve RSS, or Atom, or microformats, or XML. The problem is calendar syndication, and part of the solution is iCalendar, a non-XML format that all widely-used calendar programs support well enough for my purposes.
It’s only part of the solution because the real problem is that most people, most of the time, for most of their calendar-related activities, don’t use calendar programs. They use spreadsheets and wordprocessors, and they produce unstructured web pages and PDF files.
There was a time when, behind their backs, I would mock them for doing so. No longer. As I meet with intelligent and well-educated professionals in my community, and talk with them about how to synchronize calendar information from a variety of sources, I realize that they simply have no intuition about the difference between a PDF file and an ICS file that contain the same calendar information. Both are computer files, right? Both can be posted to the web, right? Both can be searched, right? Problem solved.
There are really two aspects to this missing intuition. First, the concept that some kinds of computer files are more structured than other kinds. Second, the concept that the structured kind can flow easily around the Net without loss of fidelity, and can deliver use value in a variety of contexts, whereas the unstructured kind is inert.
These are ways of computational thinking unknown to most people. As a school administrator, librarian, city planner, social worker, or retail store owner, nobody expects you to understand and apply these principles.
And yet almost everybody needs to harmonize personal and organizational calendars. And many individuals and organizations need to flow their calendar data into other contexts to promote and coordinate their activities.
So here’s my approach. I’m scooping up all the calendar information I can find for my community, in whatever form I can find it, and flowing it into a coommon view. Then I’m syndicating that view elsewhere to show that there’s nothing special about my aggregation.
The idea is to establish a critical mass by brute force, and allow people to see how, over time, sources that are structured and can syndicate will remain in the game, and sources that aren’t will have to sit out on the sidelines.
It’s turning into a nice case study of how organizations and individuals can negotiate shared responsibility for calendar information that’s of common interest. But that’s a story for another day. First things first. I need to give people a reason to care about using a calendar program — any calendar program, could be Outlook or Apple iCal or Google Calendar, so long as it exports iCalendar — in preference to a spreadsheet or word processor. Although the geek tribe can scarcely imagine why, that first step is a doozy.