Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

How Reliable are Widgets and RSS Feeds?

By Dennis D. McDonald

One of the nice things about modern web standards and publishing technology is that non-programmers can quickly combine data from different web based sources by using simple scripting tools.

When the tools work, the results are impressive. For example, I use Grazr for displaying RSS feeds on my web site from various sources. Given the address of an RSS feed, Grazr generates code that is easily copied into a web page’s HTML. Whenever that page is updated, feed data displayed by the Grazr widget are also updated.

I use Grazr in several locations on my own blog. For example, to display a list of my most recent blog posts on the front page of my blog, I use a Grazr widget:

 

 
I also use Grazr to display various RSS feeds from my del.icio.us bookmarks. Here is an example of the RSS feed from my del.icio.us bookmarks I have tagged with the term collaboration:

 

 

I also use Grazr, RSS, and del.icio.us bookmarks to track and publish the comments I receive on my own blog posts (comments made here) and the comments I leave on other blogs (comments made there).

In the former case I use the RSS feed that my Squarespace blogging system automatically generates for all the blog comments I receive. In the case of blog comments I make elsewhere, I manually tag the blog post I comment on when I make them and include the tag “comments” in my del.icio.us bookmark for the commented-on blog post. It’s the RSS feed generated by del.icio.us for this “comments” tag that the Grazr widget then displays on my own blog.

I’m impressed that al these systems work with each other as well as they do. Also, the Grazr and del.icio.us services I use are free so I can’t complain of any out of pocket costs.

Still, there are some issues that would need to be considered were one to consider using services like these in mission-critical applications that had significant safety, regulatory, or financial implications.

One concern is that all these systems need to work together properly for the feed — whatever the source — to show up and display on my web page correctly. This happens most of the time, but there are occasional hiccups:

  • My “comments made elsewhere” feed (see above) recently started displaying the message “no posts” even though a manual inspection of the RSS feed supplied by del.icio.us showed over 100 bookmarks for the tag “comments.” I contacted Grazr support and received an immediate response that led to the discovery of caching issues at Grazr servers and occasional errors in the RSS feed generated by del.icio.us, which Grazr is following up on. (Note to the community: I hereby applaud Grazr’s Adam Green and Michael Kowalchik for their quick response to my support requests.)
  • Several web sites pick up the RSS feed for my Managing Technology section and republish all or part of it. Examples are Facebook and Social Media Today.  The speed and frequency with which my feed is picked up and displayed varies. In fact, I’m currently communicating with Social Media Today staff about the fact that my most recent blog posts haven’t been picked up by that service. I’m hoping this issue will be resolved soon as I can’t tell where the problem is originating given that my RSS feed seems to be viewable vis a standard browser.
  • Sometimes a spam post on my blog makes its way through the usually effective Squarespace filters and shows up on one of my blog posts. I delete these as quickly as I see them. Unfortunately, the spam comment still appears for a while afterwards in the Grazr-displayed comment feed. Fortunately, clicking on the link in the Grazr widget links to nothing. This problem might not exist were it possible for me on my own to update the Grazr application on its servers but this gets us back to what you can expect to receive for “free.”

Overall, I’m very pleased with the ability to pull these systems together in one place with minimal work. The ability to weave RSS feeds together can be a powerful tool; I’ve also used it to display selected records from a DabbleDB database I maintain for tracking survey interviews.

Still, I would think twice before using this approach in an application that had more serious time, accuracy, and financial transaction implications than this blog and would advise my clients accordingly.

 

Experimenting with Reuters' Calais Automatic Tagging Tool

Cognitive Enhancement and Scientific Collaboration, Working Together