Marine mammals, Sorcerer’s Apprentices, and authoritative publication of data

As we saw last week, the future of community-scale calendaring is already here in some cases but isn’t yet evenly distributed. Consider the Seattle Aquarium’s public calendar. As curator of Seattle’s elmcity hub I’ve found four iCalendar feeds for the Aquarium:

  1. An Eventful venue. (iCal feed.)

  2. An Upcoming venue. (iCal feed.)

  3. A Facebook Page. (iCal feed.)

  4. The Aquarium’s own calendar page. (iCal feed.)

If you visit #4, the Aquarium’s calendar page, you’ll see that it does offer an Export as iCalendar link. So why isn’t that link hot here? Because it’s only wired to JavaScript code that imports a snapshot of the data into a calendar program. No URL points directly to the data. That means people can’t subscribe to the feed — and neither can the Seattle hub.

If the Aquarium were truly thinking like the web it would offer its calendar as a first-class web resource addressed by an iCalendar URL. Even better, it would offer one such URL for each view of the calendar page: Educators, Family / Kids, Members Only, Out and About, Speaker Series, Special Events, Summer Camps, Volunteer Orientation.

Since those views aren’t available as feeds I had to fall back to the other three sources. At first I merged all three to create the aquarium view of the Seattle hub. When I compared the results of the merge, though, something didn’t cross-check. An event called Marine Mammal Talk, which showed up in the Upcoming feed, wasn’t in the Eventful or Facebook feeds or on the Aquarium’s own page. Yet Upcoming’s Marine Mammal Talk page says this event was discovered by the Upcoming Robot, has occurred 498 times already, and will occur 77 more times. What’s up with that?

I searched the Aquarium’s site and found the event. Here are the details:

Tue, 15 Nov, 2011 2:43 PM – 2:43 PM

Three weekends of special activities all about the Aquarium’s Marine Mammals – Otters, Harbor Seals & Fur Seals. Join us for special talks, demonstrations and hands-on activities.

Fees: Included with regular Aquarium Admission

Calendar: Programs & Events Calendar

Category: Special Events

Repeats: Weekly on Sunday, Friday, Saturday until 4/24/2011

You can see why the Upcoming Robot was confused. The event’s date is given as Tue 15 Nov 2011. But its recurrence rule says that the last recurrence was back in April of this year.

Of course this fragment of text doesn’t really specify a date or a recurrence rule. The Upcoming Robot just inferred those, erroneously, from unstructured text. And then, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it began pumping those errors onto the web. It has evidently done so for a couple of years and will, if unchecked, continue into 2013.

I don’t blame the Upcoming Robot. Denied access to the structured data it craved, the poor thing scavenged what it could. The lesson here is for the Seattle Aquarium and for all who mean to publish data online. If you don’t establish yourself as the authoritative source for that data then others will step in to do it for you. And they are liable to get it wrong.

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