Jazz in Madison, Wisconsin: A case study in curation

The elmcity project’s newest hub is called Madison Jazz. The curator, Bob Kerwin, will be aggregating jazz-related events in Madison, Wisconsin. Bob thought about creating a Where hub, which merges events from Eventful, Upcoming, and Eventbrite with a curated list of iCalendar feeds. That model works well for hyperlocal websites looking to do general event coverage, like the Falls Church Times and Berkeleyside. But Bob didn’t want to cast that kind of wide net. He just wanted to enumerate jazz-related iCalendar feeds.

So he created a What hub — that is, a topical rather than a geographic hub. It has a geographic aspect, of course, because it serves the jazz scene in Madison. But in this case the topical aspect is dominant. So to create the hub, Bob spun up the delicious account MadisonJazz. And in its metadata bookmark he wrote what=JazzInMadisonWI instead of where=Madison,WI.

If you want to try something like this, for any kind of local or regional or global topic, the first thing you’ll probably want to do — as Bob did — is set up your own iCalendar feed where you record events not otherwise published in a machine-readable way. You can use Google Calendar, or Live Calendar, or Outlook, or Apple iCal, or any other application that publishes an iCalendar feed.

If you are very dedicated, you can enter invidual future events on that calendar. But it’s hard, for me anyway, to do that kind of data entry for single events that will just scroll off the event horizon in a few weeks or months. So for my own hub I use this special kind of curatorial calendar mainly for recurring events. As I use it, the effort invested in data entry pays recurring dividends and builds critical mass for the calendar.

Next, you’ll want to look for existing iCalendar feeds to bookmark. Most often, these are served up by Google Calendar. Other sources include Drupal-based websites, and an assortment of other content management systems. Sadly there’s no easy way to search for these. You have to visit websites relevant to the domain you’re curating, look for the event sections on websites, and then look for iCalendar feeds as alternatives to the standard web views. These are few and far between. Teaching event sponsors how and why to produce such feeds is a central goal of the elmcity project.

When a site does offer a Google Calendar feed, it will often be presented as seen here on the Surrounded By Reality blog. The link to its calendar of events points to this Google Calendar. Its URL looks like this:

1. google.com/calendar/embed?src=surroundedbyreality@gmail.com

That’s not the address of the iCalendar feed, though. It is, instead, a variant that looks like this:

2. google.com/calendar/ical/surroundedbyreality@gmail.com/public/basic.ics

To turn URL #1 into URL #2, just transfer the email address into an URL like #2. Alternatively, click the Google icon on the HTML version to add the calendar to the Google Calendar app, then open its settings, right-click the green ICAL button, and capture the URL of the iCalendar feed that way.

Note that even though a What hub will not automatically aggregate events from Eventful or Upcoming, these services can sometimes provide iCalendar feeds that you’ll want to include. For example, Upcoming lists the Cafe Montmartre as a wine bar and jazz cafe. If there were future events listed there, Bob could add the iCalendar feed for that venue to his list of MadisonJazz bookmarks.

Likewise for Eventful. One of the Google Calendars that Bob Kerwin has collected is for Restaurant Magnus. It is also a Eventful venue that provides an iCalendar feed for its upcoming schedule. If Restaurant Magnus weren’t already publishing its own feed, the Eventful feed would be an alternate source Bob could collect.

For curators of musical events, MySpace is another possible source of iCalendar feeds. For example, the band dot to dot management plays all around the midwest, but has a couple of upcoming shows in Madison. I haven’t been able to persuade anybody at MySpace to export iCalendar feeds for the zillions of musical calendars on its site. But although the elmcity service doesn’t want to be in the business of scraping web pages, it does make exceptions to that rule, and MySpace is one of them. So Bob could bookmark that band’s MySpace web page, filter the results to include only shows in Madison, and bookmark the resulting iCalendar feed.

This should all be much more obvious than it is. Anyone publishing event info online should expect that any publishing tool used for the purpose will export an iCalendar feed. Anyone looking for event info should expect to find it in an iCalendar feed. Anyone wishing to curate events should expect to find lots of feeds that can be combined in many ways for many purposes.

Maybe, as more apps and services support OData, and as more people become generally familiar with the idea of publishing, subscribing to, and mashing up feeds of data … maybe then the model I’m promoting here will resonate more widely. A syndicated network of calendar feeds is just a special case of something much more general: a syndicated network of data feeds. That’s a model lots of people need to know and apply.

Talking with Doug Day about the iCalendar validator

On this week’s Innovators show, Doug Day joins me to discuss the new iCalendar validator he has recently deployed on Azure.

The project draws inspiration from the pathbreaking RSS/Atom feed validator originally created by Mark Pilgrim and Sam Ruby. The RSS/Atom validator’s test-driven and advice-oriented approach is exemplary, and the iCalendar validator follows in its footsteps.

The tests, in this case, are iCalendar snippets that are, or are not, valid according to the spec. These snippets, packaged into XML files, form a library of examples that does not depend on the programming language used to run the tests. So although Doug’s validator, based on his open source parser, is written in C#, another validator written in Java or Python or Ruby could use the same test suite.

The advice offered is minimal so far, but I hope will expand as the test suite grows. Sam Ruby observes:

Identifying real issues that prevent real feeds from being consumed by real consumers and describing the issue in terms that makes sense to the producer is what most would call value.

In that spirit, I am gathering examples of calendars in the wild and looking for ways to help Doug add value.

In the podcast we discuss a nice example that came up recently in the curators’ room of the elmcity project. A custom-built calendar contained events (VEVENT components, in iCalendar-speak) with no start or end times (DTSTART and DTEND properties). This, it turns out, is not prohibited by the spec. But reporting no error is unhelpful. The author of the calendar — or of the software that produced the calendar — ought to be warned that such a calendar won’t yield a useful or expected result.

Why would anyone produce such a calendar in the first place? This harkens back to the early days of RSS. Many of us found that we could craft simple ad-hoc feeds in order to leverage RSS as a lightweight data exchange. It was liberating to be able to do that. But hand-crafted feeds, or feeds written by hand-crafted software, were valuable only to the extent they would reliably interoperate. Often they would not. The feed validator, by showing what was wrong with these feeds, and explaining why and how to fix them, was a powerful ally for those of us trying to bootstrap a feed ecosystem.

The iCalendar validator has a long way to go yet. But the road ahead is well lit, and I’m grateful to Doug Day for resolving to travel it.

Why we need an XML representation for iCalendar



On this week’s Innovators show I got together with two of the authors of a new proposal for representing iCalendar in XML. Mike Douglass is lead developer of the Bedework Calendar System, and Steven Lees is Microsoft’s program manager for FeedSync and chair of the XML technical committee in CalConnect, the Calendaring and Scheduling Consortium.

What’s proposed is no more, but no less, than a well-defined two-way mapping between the current non-XML-based iCalendar format and an equivalent XML format. So, for example, here’s an event — the first low tide of 2009 in Myrtle Beach, SC — in iCalendar format:

SUMMARY:Low Tide 0.39 ft

And here’s the equivalent XML:

      <date-time utc='yes'>
      <date-time utc='yes'>
      <text>Low Tide 0.39 ft</text>

The mapping is quite straightforward, as you can see. At first glance, the XML version just seems verbose. So why bother? Because the iCalendar format can be tricky to read and write, either directly (using eyes and hands) or indirectly (using software). That’s especially true when, as is typical, events include longer chunks of text than you see here.

I make an analogy to the RSS ecosystem. When I published my first RSS feed a decade ago, I wrote it by hand. More specifically, I copied an existing feed as a template, and altered it using cut-and-paste. Soon afterward, I wrote the first of countless scripts that flowed data through similar templates to produce various kinds of RSS feeds.

Lots of other people did the same, and that’s part of the reason why we now have a robust network of RSS and Atom feeds that carries not only blogs, but all kinds of data packets.

Another part of the reason is the Feed Validator which, thanks to heroic efforts by Mark Pilgrim and Sam Ruby, became and remains the essential sanity check for anybody who’s whipping up an ad-hoc RSS or Atom feed.

No such ecosystem exists for iCalendar. I’ve been working hard to show why we need one, but the most compelling rationale comes from a Scott Adams essay that I quoted from in this blog entry. Dilber’s creator wrote:

I think the biggest software revolution of the future is that the calendar will be the organizing filter for most of the information flowing into your life. You think you are bombarded with too much information every day, but in reality it is just the timing of the information that is wrong. Once the calendar becomes the organizing paradigm and filter, it won’t seem as if there is so much.

If you buy that argument, then we’re going to need more than a handful of applications that can reliably create and exchange calendar data. We’ll want anyone to whip up a calendar feed as easily as anyone can now whip up an RSS/Atom feed.

We’ll also need more than a handful of parsers that can reliably read calendar feeds, so that thousands of ad-hoc applications, services, and scripts will be able consume all the new streams of time-and-date-oriented information.

I think that a standard XML representation of iCalendar will enable lots of ad-hoc producers and consumers to get into the game, and collectively bootstrap this new ecosystem. And that will enable what Scott Adams envisions.

Here’s a small but evocative example. Yesterday I started up a new instance of the elmcity aggregator for Myrtle Beach, SC. The curator, Dave Slusher, found a tide table for his location, and it offers an iCalendar feed. So the Myrtle Beach calendar for today begins like this:

Thu Jul 23 2009


Thu 03:07 AM Low Tide -0.58 ft (Tide Table for Myrtle Beach, SC)


Thu 06:21 AM Sunrise 6:21 AM EDT (Tide Table for Myrtle Beach, SC)
Thu 09:09 AM High Tide 5.99 ft (Tide Table for Myrtle Beach, SC)
Thu 10:00 AM Free Coffee Fridays (eventful: )
Thu 10:00 AM Summer Arts Project at The Market Common (eventful: )
Thu 10:00 AM E.B. Lewis: Story Painter (eventful: )

Imagine this kind of thing happening on the scale of the RSS/Atom feed ecosystem. The lack of an agreed-upon XML representation for iCalendar isn’t the only reason why we don’t have an equally vibrant ecosystem of calendar feeds. But it’s an impediment that can be swept away, and I hope this proposal will finally do that.

Tinker to Evers to Chance, Tripit to Dopplr to Facebook

A few months back I observed:

Tripit, meet Dopplr. Dopplr, Tripit. You two should really get to know one another.

Richard Akerman replied:

You can feed TripIt’s ical output into Dopplr, I hear (I haven’t tried it)

That remark should have rung a loud bell for me, but somehow it didn’t. Then, yesterday, in conversation with James Senior, the bell rang. We were talking about how many services publish and/or subscribe to iCalendar feeds, how few people know that, and how much latent capability is being left on the table. Paraphrasing James:

I’ll give you a perfect example. I use Tripit, it’s a wonderful service. You email it your travel itinerary, and it organizes all your information for you. But I’ve been frustrated not to be able to share that information with my friends on Facebook. I also use Dopplr, and Dopplr talks to Facebook, but Tripit doesn’t. Then I realized that Tripit publishes an iCalendar feed, and that Dopplr can subscribe to iCalendar feeds. So I made that connection, and now my Tripit events are showing up in Facebook.

Brilliant. Look:

How did I miss that? Me, of all people, Mr. Splice-Everything-To-Everything, Mr. Find-Unintended-Uses-Of-Software, Mr. Cosmic-Significance-Of-Pub-Sub, Mr. Champion-Of-The-Underutilized-iCalendar-Standard, Mr. Computational-Thinking?

Because wiring the web is still too abstract, too convoluted, and too non-obvious — even, sometimes, for me.

The phrase wiring the web comes from Ray Ozzie, by the way. At ETech in 2006, demoed a concept called Live Clipboard. From my InfoWorld writeup:

Subscribing to an RSS feed, for example, has never conformed to any familiar user-interface pattern. Soon copying and pasting RSS feeds will feel natural to everyone, and Ozzie hopes the copy/paste metaphor will also make advanced capabilities more accessible. Consider my LibraryLookup bookmarklet. Dragging it onto the browser’s toolbar isn’t something easily understood or explained. Using the clipboard as the wiring junction will make a lot more sense to most people.

The same metaphor can accommodate what I’ve called lightweight service composition and what Ozzie calls “wiring the Web.” He showed how RSS feeds acting as service end points can be pasted into apps to create dynamically updating views. Virtually anyone can master this Tinkertoy approach to self-serve mashups.

This was, and remains, a crucial insight. From now on, we are all going to be wiring the web in one way or another. And we’re going to need a conceptual frame in which to do that — ideally, a user-interface metaphor that’s already familiar. Maybe it’s as simple as copy/paste. Maybe it’s more like Yahoo! Pipes or Popfly blocks. Whatever it turns out to be, we need to invent and deploy a universal junction box for wiring the web.