OU DevLabsAlpha

Oh, great day! It seems that keen to jump on the bandwagon, the OU will soon be opening up a “Uni-API”, in part inspired by the opening of the Grauniad and New York Times APIs. And taking a lead from Google in more ways than one, the new OU site will pilot not yet for mainstream use services (in much the same way that Google Labs does), on the “devlabs_alpha” site (http://dvla.open.ac.uk I think, but I need to check that…)

Hopefully a couple of applications I’ve been involved with will make it on to devlabs_alpha, such as the Course Profiles Facebook app (not sure how many users it has now? I’d hope upwards of 6,000?) and the OU/iPlayer 7 day Catch Up iPhone webpage.

One of the features of the site will be a voting mechanism for people to vote up the applications they like, and feed into the more traditional process of allocating formal resource to a project and developing it as a fully blown production system.

The Google influence goes further with the adoption in LT/AAC-S of 10:10 time, based on the famous (apocryphal?) 10% time that allows Google employees to work on development projects of their own devising. In order to regain some semblance of control, 10:10 requires two developers to each dedicate their personal 10% time to the same project, and work on it using a pair programming approach. It is hoped this will guarantee that useful rather than frivolous projects will result (in part because anyone with an idea has to persuade someone else to work on it too…). (A cynic like me would see this as introducing friction to the system in that hope that a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation occurs, no-one pairs up and no 10% is used up; but more fool me, maybe… ;-)

The pair programming feature is there to get around the lack of a formal development cycle, in the hope that pairwise testing will result in pretty robust code (good enough to be rapidly upgraded to production code if the service is adopted as a mainstream service).

Anyway, I think this beats the likes of MIT to this sort of initiative (I don’t think we’ll ever forgive them for letting them get to be the first institution to take their wares open!) and hopefully we’ll see this as just the first of many such similar offerings….

PS Always check the date stamp of a post..;-) But it makes you think, doesn’t it…?!

404 “Page Not Found” Error pages and Autodiscoverable Feeds for UK Government Departments

Around the time of the IWMW event last year, I put together a couple of quick pages that published the 404/page not found error pages for all the UK HEI homepages I could find (UK HEI “Page Not Found” Error Pages) and all the autodiscoverable RSS feeds that could be found on the HEI web homepages (Back from Behind Enemy Lines, Without Being Autodiscovered(?!)).

(Rather tellingly, some of the 404 pages are still, err, rather basic, and and many of the sites still haven’t quite got the idea of the utility of this RSS malarkey yet…)

So given that I’ve started poking around various government department websites, here’s a page that pulls back images of their 404/page not found pages, as well as links to any RSS feeds that are autodiscoverable from the department’s home web page: UK Government Department webpage auditor.

The list of department homepage URLs is scraped from the central government department sites page on the Number10 website via this Yahoo pipe- UK Gov Dept Website Audit pipe, which scrapes a list of links from the central government department sites page HTML. (If there’s a more authoritative list somewhere, feel fee to post a link in the comments to this post.)

The pipe then annotates each department item with a non-existent page link and tries to autodiscover any RSS feeds that are linked to from the department homepage.

The pipe output feed is then loaded into the auditor webpage, and pulls in a thumbail for each 404 page from the Thummer service. (I actually hit this quite hard over the weekend… Sorry, Matt… However, the thumbnail generating code is available from the site, so if anyone fancies hosting a copy an maybe setting up a tracking service so we can see how government department website 404 pages change over the coming weeks, that’d be a neat thing to do..;-)

So what sorts of feed might be good to find on a Government department website? (It’s worth remembering you can link to several.) Typical offerings include news feeds and job ads. As of a week or two ago, a quick win has become available for grabbing the job ads from the Civil Service Job Service API on the Civil Service (beta) Developers page. And if that’s too hard, Steph Gray’s Civil Service jobs, your way describes a service he knocked together in no time that will “[g]enerate an RSS feed of jobs from any specific department”: Government Jobs Direct. So for example, here’s a Jobs feed from DIUS that could be made autodiscoverable from the DIUS homepage? ;-)

I’d quite like to see a feed of current consultations (and maybe one with a full list of recent consultations, both open and closed). As a quick win, the maintainers of the department websites could even just link to a feed of consultations being held by their department from Tell Them What You Think. For example, here’s where you can grab a feed of recent consultations from the Home Office:

(Harry, have you thought of making the feeds autodiscoverable from those pages too?;-)

Okay, that’s more than enough for now – I’ve probably already done more than enough to cause a few people grief this morning ;-) Just to recap: here’s a link to the UK Government Department 404 and feed autodiscovery page.

PS digging through my Pipes collection, I found another one to do with feed autodiscovery from government websites: Autodiscover Government Consultation feeds. This uses a pipe that grabs a list of Government Department consultation websites (via TellThemWhatYouThink) and then runs those pages through a feed autodiscovery routine.

When I get a chance, I’ll add this info to the auditor web page…

Anti-tags and Quick and Easy Block (Un)commenting

Looking back over the comments to @benosteen‘s post on Tracking conferences (at Dev8D) with python, twitter and tags just now, I noticed this comment from him replying to a comment from @miaridge about “app noise” appearing in the hashtag feed:

@mia one thing I was considering was an anti-tag – e.g. #!dev8d – so that searches for ‘dev8d’ would hit it, but ‘#dev8d’ shouldn’t.

The other tweak to mention is that booleans work on the twitter search:

‘#dev8d -from:randomdev8d’ would get all the #dev8d posts, but exclude those from randomdev8d.

Likewise, to get all the replies to a person, you can search for ‘to:username’, handy to track people responding to a person.

Brilliant:-)

Note also that one thing worth bearing in mind when searching on Twitter is that a search for @psychemedia is NOT the same as a search for to:psychemedia. That is, those two searches may well turn up different results.

The “to:” only searches for tweets that START with “@pscyhemedia”; so id @psychemedia appears elsewhere in the tweet (e.g. “waht the ??? is @psychemedia talking about?”), the “to:” search will not find it, whereas the “@” search will.

Why’s this important? Well, a lot of people new to using Twitter use the Twitter website interface to manage their interactions, the the “Replies” screen is powered like the “to:” search. Which means if someone “replies” to you in a “multiple addressee” tweet – e.g. “@mweller @psychemedia are you gonna make some more edupunk movies?”, then if you’re not the first named person, the @Replies listing won’t show the tweet… the only way you can discover them is to search twitter for “@psychemedia”, for example.

The Twitter advanced search option to search for posts “Referencing a person” is simply a search of the @person form.

(Note that Twitter search lets you subscribe to search results – so you can always subscribe to an ego search feed and receive updates that way; or you can use a client such as Tweetdeck which runs the search automatically.)

(I’m not sure what happens if someone actually replies to one of your tweets and then prepends some text before your name? Will twitter still spot this as a reply? If anyone knows, can you please comment back?)

Just by the by, the “anti-tag” trick reminds me of this code commenting pattern/trick (I don’t remember where I came across it offhand?) that makes it easy to comment and uncomment blocks of code (e.g. in PHP or Javascript):

Before the comment…]
/*
This will be commented out…
//*/
After the comment…

To uncomment out the block of code, just add a leading “/” to the first comment marker to turn it into a single line comment:

Before the comment…]
//*
This will NO LONGER be commented out…
//*/
After the comment…

The block comment closing tag is now itself single line commented out.

(I seem to remember it was described far more eloquently than that when I came across it!;-)

PS Ah ha, here we are – where I first saw the commenting trick: Every keystroke is a prisoner – a neat commenting trick.

QR Payments

Over dinner one evening at Dev8D, we fell to chatting about payment mechanisms in restaurants, and how the credit card payment model requires you to hand over your card so that it can read in a third party carder reader – that is, a device that is not under your control.

How much easier it would be if you could be handed your bill with a QR-code attached, which, when scanned, created a Paypal style payment that you could pay via a client on your phone. That is, your phone could become the payment appliance; the transaction is exectued on your mobile phone, using your PayPal account. A web-enabled till could then be used to confirm that the payment had been made.

Easy – and probably hack togetherable via the PayPal or Amazon Flexible Payments API?

For example, you could on the fly create a short-lived web page detailing the bill with a PayPal or Amazon “Pay now” button on it (or ideally, a mobile payments site, such as PayPal’s Mobile Checkout); generate a URL to the page in the form of a QR code; let the user grab the URL with their phone and go to the appropriate payment page on Paypal or Amazon Payments. Job done?

PS it seems there’s probably a patent or two out there already trying to lay claim to this sort of idea, such as this one for a Distributed Payment System and Method.

Which raises a question for me. Patents allow invents a period of grace to recoup expenses incurred during a process of invention. So if you can easily hack a solution together using bits of string and RESTful APIs you can find scattered around the web, what is it that actually merits the right to protection?

PS and lo, it came to pass… Now There’s Even an App That Lets You Pay for Coffee at Starbucks. See also Starbucks Launches First Dedicated iPhone App for Stored-Value Cards for screenshots.

Global Sunrise

This post is as much a thought out loud as much as anything, but who knows – maybe it’ll go somewhere…;-)

Last week, we did our first “special” with the BBC World Service Digital Planet programme (Exploring the GeoWeb with Digital Planet). Over the next week or two, we’ll be chatting over how it went and identifying – now we now a little more clearly about how we can support the programme on open2.net – what sorts of support we might be able to offer to wrap around future programmes.

So I started riffing around around the idea of travel bugs, geo-coded photos, the intereactive photo exhibits that grew up around Obama’s Presidential inauguration and such like, and wondered about a global participatory event… a global distributed photo shoot…

So here’s what I was wondering – at the next equinox (‘cos we know when that is) or the summer solstice (cos we all know when that is, too) we try to get people from all over the world to photograph the moment of sunrise (or sunset) and upload their geocoded, time stamped photos, taken on that day, just thjat day, and that day only, to flickr (or wherever). And then we make a movie of it: “Global Sunrise”.

So whaddya think?:-)

(Or has it been done already…?)

Social Telly? The Near Future Evolution of TV User Interfaces

In When One Screen Controls Another I pulled together a few links that showed how devices like the iPhone/iPodTouch might be used to provide rich UI, touchscreen interfaces to media centres, removing the need for on-screen control panels such as electronic programming guides and recorder programming menus by moving those controls to a remote handset. But there’s another direction in which things may evolve, and that’s towards ever more “screen furniture”.

For example, a prototype demoed last year by the BBC and Microsoft shows how it might be possible to “share” content you are viewing with someone in your contact list, identify news stories according to location (as identified on a regional or world map), or compile your own custom way through a news story by selecting from a set of recommended packages related to a particular news piece. (The latter demo puts me in mind of a course topic that is constructed by a student out of pre-prepared “learning objects’).

You can read more about the demo here – Will viewers choose their own running order? – (which I recommend you do…) but if that’s too much like hard work, at least make time to watch the promo video:

For another take on the software underpinning the Microsoft Media Room software that underpins the BBC demo, check out this MediaRoom promo video:

For alternative media centre interfaces, it’s worth checking out things like Boxee (reviewed here: Boxee makes your TV social), XBMC and MythTV.

It’s also worth bearing in mind what current, widely deployed set-top box interfaces look like, such as the Sky Plus interface:

In contrast to the media centre approach, Yahoo is making a pitch for Connected TV: Widget Channel (e.g. as described here: Samsung, Yahoo, Intel Put TV Widget Pieces in Place, showing how the widget channel can be buot directly into digital TVs, as well as set-top boxes).

(Remember Konfabulator, anyone? It later became Yahoo widgets which have now morphed, in turn, into content for the widget channel. In contrast, Yahoo’s media centre/PVR download – Yahoo! Go™ for TV – appears to have stalled, big time…)

The widget channel has emerged from a collaboration between Yahoo and Intel and takes the idea of desktop widgets (like Konfabulator/Yahoo widgets, Microsoft Vista Sidebar gadgets, Google Desktop gadgets , or Mac Dashboard) on to the TV screen, as an optional overlay that pops up on top of your normal TV content.

Here’s a demo video:

So – which approach will play out and hit the living room first? Who knows, and maybe even “who cares…?!”

PS maybe, maybe, the should OU care? As an institution, our reputation and brand recognition was arguably forged by our TV broadcasts, back in a time when telly didn’t start till lunchtime, and even when it did start, you were likely to find OU “lecture-like” programmes dominating the early afternoon schedule):

Where’s the brand recognition going to come from now? 1970s OU programming on the BBC showed how the OU could play a role as a public service broadcast educator, but I’m not sure we fulfill that mission any more, even via our new web vehicles (Youtube, iTunesU, OU podcasts etc.)? I’d quite like to see an OU iPlayer, partly because it allows us to go where iPlayer goes, but I also wonder: do we need to keep an eye on the interfaces that might come to dominate the living room, and maybe get an early presence in there?

For example, if the BBC get into the living room with the Canvas set-top box, would we want a stake somewhere in the interface?

PS just so you know, this post was written days ago, (and scheduled for delivery), way before the flurry of other posts out there on this topic that came out this week… ;-)

When One Screen Controls Another

In earlier posts, I’ve pondered on the rise of “dual screen” activity (e.g. Dual View Media Channels), but what about when one screen provides the control surface for another?

Earlier this week, the new release of the Apple Mac iWork office productivity suite included an announcement about an iPhone remote control app for Keynote (Keynote is the Mac equivalent of Microsoft’s Powerpoint presentation software). Here’s a demo video showing how it works:

I’d been looking for something like this for some time (and have been tempted to try out the free Telekinesis universal remote, though I’ve not had chance to get round to installing it yet) so it was good to see what Apple’s “official solution” looks like.

Whilst taking the dog out for a walk, it occurred to me that using an iPhone/iPod touch like remote could be really handy for many other home entertainment appliances – like the telly, for example. Want to know what’s on the other side without changing channel (or using a picture-in-picture pop up? Why not preview it on your remote? Or how about checking out the programme guide? It’s a real pain having to steal the screen to view the guide, so why not check it out on your remote instead? Programming the DVD/HDD recorder is another activity that prompts the “can I just set the video” routine, as you change to the ever popular “schedule recording” channel. Duh – why not just do it on the remote…? And so on…

Of course, it seems that several “screen remote” clients are already out there… like the Apple official “Remote” app for iTunes/Apple TV (review here), or the rather more elaborate Remote Buddy, as shown in this video:

And if “Remote Buddy” isn’t to your taste, how about iSofa (video):

(For an up-to-the-minute review of iSofa, check out Get Yer Feet Off iSofa; as well as “remote-ing” your Mac, iSofa lets you open “not a web browser, but a file one. It allows you to navigate your user directory on the computer, and open files that can be opened in Safari on the iThing- images, Word files, PDFs, etc” – thanks for that, Alan:-)

As ever, it seems as if the future really is out there… So for example, take that “EPG remote on an iPhone” idea? MythTV viewers can already try it out with MyMote:

Do you ever get the feeling you’re living in a William Gibson novel?

PS thanks to Owen for the pointer to Air Mouse (use your iPodTouch as a mouse’n’keyboard combo for your Mac), and @oxfordben for a “fwiw” pointer to the MythWeb web interface to MythTV.

PPS See also Steps Towards Making Augmented Reality A Reality, which shows how to use an iPhone/iPodTouch as part of an augmented reality setup:-)