Cycling, macintosh, natural history and life in Singapore - Archives
Fri 21 Jan 2005
RSS and natural history news in Singapore
Category : mac and the internet
Natural history news aggregation with RSS
I've created and initiated several blogs related to natural history in Singapore. Not all are frequently updated but are relevant when done so, and the unseasoned reader has a tough time keeping track of it all. Despite the availability of tabbed browsing and tabbed bookmarks in browsers like Camino, Safari and even Firefox for pc users, most readers are actually not very internet-savvy and so I looked to RSS to help solve this.
RSS is a means of delivering the content of a webpage to a news aggregator. For information junkies, it means being able to scan many newspapers and blogs for relevant content from just one place. Or if many of your friends blog, but do so rarely, an RSS aggregator will alert you when any of them post new content - its just like getting email. And this is significantly superior to tabbed browsing for less frequently updated sites.
In my case, aggregation would allow me to consolidate alerts and/or content about updated natural history sites for Singapore for readers.
The blog engines I use for all my sites - Samizdat and Blogger - both came with rss feeds. I had hesitated until last month when I finally fixed the Samizdat rss feed, and it now displays photos!
This promising development coupled with a blog's ease of updating webpages encouraged me to convert two more sites into blogs - the Meetings of the NUS Biology & Ecology Journal Club and the Asian Otter Newsletter.
I then set up a public feed for natural history blogs using Bloglines (see image). This feed now groups about 20 RSS feeds from the various natural history blogs, publicly listed yahoogroups mailing lists and headlines from relevant sections of the Straits Times.
With tsunami-related information coming in fast and furious, I used Jeremy Zawodny's rss news generator to add a watch for"mangroves" or "coral reef" in Yahoo news.
The reader interested in natural history now only needs to visit one webpage to check more than 20 sites.
You will still visit webpages - a click of the title in the feed takes you to the original site. I do this when I want to view photos or long posts against the design of the originating webpage, which is usually better looking. Additionally, news pages and mailing list messages only provide headlines, so you have to switch over to read the complete article as well.
Get your own Bloglines feed
The public feed I created is extremely limited though, so subscribing to your own free Bloglines account is a better option. Your own account will highlight new posts, just like an email reader. You will be able to add other sites and topics your list, e.g. I subscribe to a few macintosh and science feeds as well. And there are easy subscribing buttons, notifiers and other toys, erm.. tools and other options to try out!
Bloglines is an example of a web-based news aggregator, allowing you to access or update your subscriptions anywhere, anytime. Being web-based, it is platform and location independent. You can thus subscribe to a feed on a mac in Singapore, and read it on a pc in Finland and allow a friend on a linux machine in Thailand to read your subscriptions.
Interestingly, I was alerted to Bloglines in 2003 when reading about Mark Fletcher the guy who brought us OneList - the origins of yahoogroups. I used OneList to start Habitatnews and Ecotax in 1998. And today, his other develpoment, Bloglines can read the XML feed of publicly-listed yahoogroups like these. Bloglines is doing so well, other news aggregators are tapping their feed. Smart guy.
Desktop news agggregators
A desktop news aggregator may be faster than a web-based aggregator or at least mask the sluggishness I sometimes experience on Bloglines. These work the same way as Bloglines, except that you are running an application on your computer, so it has to be a machine you own or have dedicated access to.
I earlier mentioned NewsFire for its very mac-like simplicity and elegance, the search button, audio alert for new posts and clear presentation of headlines and bylines.
Old favourite NetNewsWire's has a 2.0 (beta) Lite version. I find I prefer the three-paned view (which came to Entourage X 2004). It is also a lot more customisable these days and after enlarging fonts and choosing some styles and colours, I found it the feeds easier to read!
Integration with email
Mozilla's Firefox and Thunderbird integrated aggregators and others are hastily following suit. E.g. see Live Bookmarks in Firefox. I feel it makes sense particularly in email applications like Thunderbird as the display and management of feeds is similar to email and will make it easy for new users . This function will make Thunderbird even more attractive to my pc-using friends.
Hunting for feeds
Now armed with an aggregator, you can hunt for RSS feeds in your favourite webpages. Bloglines has a quick-subscribe button that you can place on your browser's toolbar. I added it to my Safari toolbar. Each time I wanted to add a feed, I typed (in my case) Command-8, and Bloglines checked and presented a subscription addition window if a feed was available. It thus took me a very short time to create (and update) the Singapore naturalists public feed page.
A desktop aggregator can do something similar - type "feed:" before the URL, e.g. "feed:http://www.bluetempeh.blogspot.com", and the feed will be automatically acquired by your default news aggregator such as NetNewsWire!
If either method does not work, look for the word rss, atom, syndicate or a small orange box labelled RSS 0.91, Atom, XML, Feedburner, etc. Click and copy the link, or drag the icon to your news aggregator or subscribe to it with bloglines instructions and you're in business!
Many bloggers who use Blogger.com actually have atom feeds which they not always aware they have! Happily, many opt to leave their site feed turned on.
Using an aggregator to keep in touch with a friend's personal sites seems a little distant though, as your friend will lose visitor numbers and the referred links data. So drop in once in awhile to add a comment, so they know you're listening.
While many blogs provide complete feeds, news sites usually only provide headlines. Still, I find it almost as good as flipping pages for a headline that catches your eye. Hint: if using a desktop aggregator, set preferences to open browser pages in the background and set your browser to open new links in tabs.
You can also exchange subscriptions, e.g. here is my opml feed (ctrl or right click and download) for nature singapore blogs and lists. You can open this in Bloglines and other applications. By exporting and importing feeds as opml files, you can synchronise desktop aggregators between terminals and aggregrators, desktop and web-based.
Webpage blog alerts
Another method I explored was the provision of a visually-significant headline to advertise relevant content in other pages. This was important for IT-hesitant users struggling to navigate even one webpage! You can't tell them about RSS just yet and not everyone will like RSS anyway, so perhaps this might be of some help.
I am not sure if they slow down page loading times though. I have put off this investigation for the moment, but suffice to say, it looks useful. There are more options in the internet and when I am keeping my eyes open.
Nature Singapore portal
I fancy there are better solutions within reach, for everything that I have tried. Our local naturalists will never align our efforts efficiently as its hard enough to do what we do. And our styles are quite different - although we work differently, our objectives are aligned in harmony.
So we need method that will not stifle this output yet link our material and add pointers to the new blogs and webpages out there, like the many nature photographers that we feature occasionally.
Perhaps syndication of abstracts of posts from various sites into a unique Nature Singapore portal might do the trick, much like how Economymatters has syndicated Habitatnews and a few other sites.
Meanwhile, I hope to nudge the more important natural history content providers in Singapore, WildSingapore and EARTH, towards blogging and syndication tools. They've both sniffed at it a little. Hopefully they'll bite soon!