The free rider solution

On certain summer nights in Keene, NH, you can wind the clock back 100 years and experience baseball from another era. Our town hosts an NECBL (New England College Baseball League) team called the Swamp Bats. Their home games, at the high school’s Alumni Field, are like Norman Rockwell paintings come to life. Fans arrive early to set up lawn chairs along the third base line. Between innings children compete in egg-balancing races. A few of the players will end up in the big show, but all of them remind us why baseball is the national pastime.

We like to get out to at least a few games each year. In years past the Bats’ Google Calendar helped remind me to do that. But this year the schedule became a silo. The data is trapped in a web page. It can no longer flow, as it once did, to Keene’s calendar hub or to my personal calendar.

Happily I found a way to liberate that data. So now you can once again see the Swamp Bats calendar here and subscribe to it here. The circumstances and techniques that made this possible are worth exploring.

It turns out that while the Swamp Bats’ own calendar is a data silo, the NECBL’s master calendar does the right thing and complements its HTML view with an iCalendar feed. Crucially the NECBL’s calendar does another right thing: it adopts a consistent naming convention. The titles of events on the calendar look like this:

VM@KS 6:30pm

DW@SM 6:30pm

NB@NG 6:30pm

That’s shorthand for:

Vermont Mountaineers vs Keene Swamp Bats at Keene

Danbury Westerners vs Sanford Mainers at Sanford

New Bedford Bay Sox vs Newport Gulls at Newport

To create an iCalendar feed for Keene home games, I used an iCalendar filter to find “@KS” in the titles of the NECBL feed and produce a new feed with just the matching events.

Since I’ve recently started an elmcity hub for Montpelier Vermont I did the same thing there. Filtering on “@VM” gives a view for the Vermont Mountaineers’ home games that you can see here and subscribe to here.

These maneuvers suggest an interesting twist on the free rider problem. When one person upgrades the quality of an online information source and makes the improved source available to everyone, the free ride everyone can enjoy isn’t a problem at all. It’s a solution.

Last week, for example, I visited Montpelier to speak with a state official about the elmcity project. He described a problem that’s familiar to many parents. His kids are in a sports league; their schedule comes to him formatted as an Excel spreadsheet; he can’t merge that Excel schedule with his personal calendar. So he transcribed the data into Google Calendar. And having done so, he shared it with other parents. That’s a free ride the sports league ought to provide. But in this era of abundant free cloud services, any parent can offer it instead, merely by satisfying a personal need. Web users who become web makers can turn the free rider problem into a solution.

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