Saturday, July 21, 2007

ToDo: Yahoo Pipes

Today's "ToDo:" Yahoo Pipes. Nifty, cool, efficient.

If we're all gonna love having big pipes here in Lafayette and find ourselves living on the web as a consequence (like I think we will when we're not dancing or eating crawfish or boudin) then we're gonna have to learn to deal with the dreaded "information overload."

The problem is an embarrassment of riches: the net makes so much information effortlessly available that it is all too easy to while away the hours when you could be doing something useful like playing with your grandchildren or searching out the best boudin place doing something merely mundane like keeping up with the news on LUS' fiber system.

Not Good.

Don't let it happen to you.

Play a bit with Yahoo pipes and you'll discover that for a small upfront investment in time spent building a pipe you can eliminate a host of tedious clicks from you regular routine. Yahoo pipes lets you concatenate RSS feeds into one giant feed and search that feed for items of interest, filtering out all the gradu that you wouldn't bother to read anyway.

The simplest pipes (see an example below) just search a set of feeds for all mentions of your favorite thing. You could, for instance, search all Lafayette media mention of your favorite topic. I put together a pipe which will search most of South Louisiana's major media. You can travel to a "pipe" which searches on "Blanco" and today returns mostly the comments on her recent set of vetos. (Be paitient—Yahoo is searching 1278 items and winnowing it down to the 20 or so articles you'll see. And it will do it a LOT faster than you would—so quit your whining.) Another pipe, searching "Vitter" lets you feast on the latest local coverage of the scandal.

It's all very easy really and Yahoo has done its best to make it as easy as possible. In an earlier ToDo article I recommended an animation programming environment called "Scratch" in part for its super easy introduction to visual programming for kids. Yahoo pipes works off the same idea. You are presented with a palette of tools (like sources, user input, operators, and various bits to manipulate your data). You pick up a tool and drop it onto a working canvas, paste source links into the "source" tool, drop a search "operator" onto the canvas, type in your search term, then simply "pull" links to indicate that you want to search your source based on the search terms you typed. Link that to an output device and save. You're done. All very intuitive and fun to play with since you can mess with your connections, sources, and operators to see what they do and how they change what you get.

That sort of quick check is not all you can do—but that should be enough to get you started. Here's a version of the "South Louisiana News Search" that is a redevelopment of one I've put together for my own use that contains more bells and whistles and a rudimentary user interface. (It's a model for some tools I've been thinking about for the Lafayette Commons I'd like to see our community have. (more)) The "South Louisiana News Search" pipe is embedded on a web page and lets you enter your own search term. The return comes back tagged with the website from which it was pulled and is (poorly) time-sorted from most recent to oldest. Now imagine what you could do with geotagging and calendar feeds in addition to the RSS type feeds I've played with here. Then contemplate using Google Gears to pull in database material, give it all a real user interface, and allow you to go offline with the data and the means to do something with it.

This sort of fun and simple tool is only the beginning.

Lagniappe: Your favorite info source hasn't gotten on the RSS bandwagon yet? Try Feedity.com. It will let you convert that page to an (undated) feed that Pipes can use.

Lagniappe2: Don't like my feed? Wish it had Alexandria? Can't fathom why I left off the sports feeds? Wish it included your home town newspaper? Just go to Yahoo, register (free), login, and "clone" that feed. (I've made it publicly available.) Tweak, alter, add, subtract, and improve to your heart's content.

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