If This Then That

If this then that

Between Flipboard and Zite on the iPad my primary means of consuming news and social media is a settled thing. But the workflow to act upon an information item is not consistent. A new startup IFTTT, aka ‘if this then that‘, takes an excellent crack at the problem.

To add more context, on Flipboard my way of marking an item for acting upon it later differs. I ‘favorite‘ tweets, ‘star‘ RSS entries from Google Reader and ‘like‘ Facebook entries. On Zite, for items I wish to act upon, I end up ‘bookmarking‘ them on delicious. Ideally I would have all favorite tweets, star RSS entries end up at delicious.

Think of IFTTT as a way to act on content from any of your social media streams, based on specific conditions being true within the content. Simple example is to bookmark a tweet in delicious if I favorite it in Twitter. IFTTT does this automatically now.

To be clear Yahoo Pipes does do this and more but the user interface is suited for those with programming experience or at least the ability to understand and build flow-charts. IFTTT excels because of its UX simplicity. The means for setting up a task are like reading a simple sentence and filling in the blanks. GUI has given way to a simple textual interface. Beautiful is an understatement!

Head over to IFTTT and have a play. They are in beta though. I have 5 invites to give away, drop me a mail(check my ‘About’ page) and I can send you one. And my first recipe to save favorite tweets to delicious is here.

(Thanks to Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket for pointing out!)

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Deep Linking or Winer Links

Couple of key innovations out this week from NY Times. Very small but when done at scale can allow mainstream adoption of deep linking.

What is deep linking. For example if you have a link to a page then deep link would point you to a specific section within the page. So a dual action is performed – first navigate to the page and then navigate to the section within the page.

So what are the innovations?

Permalink to any paragraph on the NY Times website

Head over now to NY Times, hit Shift key twice in succession and you will see the paragraph mark, Pilcrows, appear. Try it now, I shall be around. Each paragraph mark provides a link to itself directly.

Now intra page links have always been available using the named section approach. So what makes this special? Instead of the content creator deciding upfront what sections should be marked out for navigation, the ability to generate links to a paragraph is baked into the infrastructure. The syntax is simple too, it uses the named section idiom by appending a name after the #. You just add the letter ‘p’ followed by the paragraph number.

Now this is not a new innovation. Dave Winer, the guru of RSS spec, has been doing this on his Scripting.com site for ages. Check Winer’s coverage of NY Times implementing this feature. But for someone with the reach of NY Times to do this makes it ready for mainstream consideration and adoption.

Highlight any paragraph or sentence(s)

This feature extends the idiom of the paragraph linking mentioned above. Just that it highlights a paragraph or a sentence or even a set of sentences. If you need to do this for multiple sections or sentences you could just append the required markup together.

Benefits of Paragraph Permalinks and Highlight Idioms

The benefit is not just time saved for the content creator. It could go to the very root of how content is packaged, distributed, consumed, commented upon and tracked. The creator of the page provides his view of packaging his content. Consumers can subsequently opine about specific sections, have conversations around them and more. They can also assemble sections of content from different pages and further distribute it. Permalinks and ability to highlight sections, using both these approaches, will be available by naturally extending the idioms that the Web infrastructure already provides.

WordPress Plug-in

This blog too has Winer Links implemented. Go to any post instead of the home page and you can see it action. For example check this post. You can implement this on your WordPress site too using the excellent plug-in by Daniel Bachhuber called WinerLinks.

Anyway, that is my take on this feature. What do you think? You should add comments below on what you think.

Characteristics of a Semantic Web Application

What are the characteristics of a credible Semantic Web site? That was the question on a semantic web group on LinkedIn. I attempt an answer out here.

Is there anything called a Semantic Web app?

My immediate thought was, does anyone know at all? Is there a minimum set of features that would make an application SemWeb compliant? Of course there is the vision of Tim Berners Lee on the Semantic Web out here. The Wikipedia article here does a good job of laying out the overall idea of it.

But there is no consensus, that I am aware of at least, on the minimum characteristics required for anything to be called a SemWeb app.

Without accepted criteria, anything goes

Without a established threshold it becomes easy for the hype machine to mislead and set wrong expectations. Those of you who followed the startup Twine will know what am talking about. Not everything with the SemWeb label is remotely what the vision of TimBLee implied.

Here is an answer that I proposed.

Criteria 1 – Data Portability

Use common agreed upon standards to markup information, so that they can be mashed up in contexts the original data provider did not anticipate. This is not a trivial exercise. Often data is locked in proprietary data formats and behind antique APIs. An entire industry of data integration tools exists to serve this problem.

The metadata surrounding the data is one aspect. The other is how much of this metadata actually is available at the point of consumption for consumers to leverage. This is more odious than it sounds. This would be topic for another blog post!

Check DataPortability for initiatives in this area.

Criteria 2 – Ubiquity

Make the above marked up data available in the widest possible channels. Though this is a content delivery criteria I feel its critical to derive the benefits of the SemWeb. No point hiding semantically rich data behind proprietary APIs and endpoints. HTTP and the REST route should be the protocol; XMPP is another delivery channel, if your data is time-sensitive.

Criteria 3 – Expose data graph

I use this term for lack of alternatives. Data does not live in a silo. Defining a grammar for your data via an ontology is just one aspect. There is always a reference to some other element that will enhance or clarify its meaning.

Mapping and translating between ontologies is a possibility too. Still the idea of a data graph needs to be present. Make this explicit by providing links from key entities and facts within your data, say by linking to DBPedia if the concepts involved are public. If the information is private to your organization, then allow the data consumption hops possible across applications within your organization.

Criteria 4 – Allow inferences

Too many SW apps stop at searching and aggregation. I feel some basic amount of inferences should be allowed. To make non-obvious connections bare should be the outcome for a data graph that is linked deeply. To make patterns hidden with data apparent.

I remember seeing the term Serendipity Quotient, a measure how much non-apparent connections or insights can be revealed. This could be similar to data mining but I think this is a superficial similarity. The nature of insights from the SW apps would also be on unstructured data unlike data mining which is more attuned to structured data.

Note that we are not trying to be dogmatic about which data formats or inference mechanisms are used.

Infancy of the SemWeb

Going by this criteria I think we are yet to see a proper SemWeb app. These are early days and the apps are our first attempt at building something so ambitious as a globally linked data, allowing machines to be infused with intelligence.

We also have to account for the fact that many of these criteria may be already implemented behind the scenes to pull off the kind of smart behavior we have come to expect from the SemWeb.

Your chance to add meaning!

With that I would like to pose some questions. Do you agree with the criteria above? What would you add/remove/embellish to this list? Are there apps that do all of the above?

Ditching Google Reader and Chrome, Feedly is in the House


I confess. I have an RSS addiction. And I believe I have found my perfect fix in Feedly.

I have used a variety of RSS aggregators. Between the rich and thin client approaches I have tried many. And even wrote some simple aggregators of my own.

As I said, I have an RSS addiction. And I typically let nothing come in the way of my feeds and me. The aggregator has to do its job and get out of the way.

In a space that I had, mistakenly, thought was commoditized, and was largely wrapped up by Google Reader, comes an innovation that blows every competition away. 

Feedly. Integrates with Google Reader seamlessly. From importing the feeds to keeping your shared and starred items in sync. Wiring to FriendFeed, Twitter. 

As if all that were not enough, there is the mini-bar that sits in a corner of the browser. And with minimal intrusion to your browsing experience, can share the current page on Twitter, check the activity levels on FriendFeed and more.

What really awed me was the user experience on the home page. The layout is like a magazine. The entries are grouped, highlighted and quite pretty to view.

All actions like sharing, staring entries can be carried out in line within Feedly. The GReader-ish inline expansion of collapsed entries. It is all there.

This add-in weaned me away from Chrome. I now get my RSS fix from Feedly on Firefox.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts the need for standardized data formats, say like RSS, check out the magic in Feedly. Arbitrary sources publishing content as RSS. Laid out, aggregated, grouped and all decked up for your viewing pleasure by an add-in.

Take it from a freshly minted convert, this is what you have been wanting all your life! 🙂