Information Feeds & Yahoo! Pipes

Yahoo! Pipes are not anything new, they’ve been out as beta for over a year now, but they are one of the more under-utilised tools available.  Someone recently asked me about them, so I thought I’d do a quick blog entry on how to use them. To do this, I need to try and explain information feeds too.  This may be a bit more tecchie than some blog entries, but it’s a useful tool so I thought I’d give it a go.

The web is made up of various types of information.  The first, blandest, format is text, sometimes enhanced slightly through HTML.  Most webpages you see are written in a form of HTML.  HTML allows a web designers to change the way the page looks to a human eye (the format), by making text bold, larger, smaller or in different colours.  However, it still needs a human mind to understand it.  If you send the information to someone with the HTML taken out, it just becomes plain old boring text.  That’s where XML comes in.  XML marks out the content of the page rather than the format, meaning that when the information is sent, another web page can process it in it’s own way.  If that’s a bit confusing, think of it like this.  This blog entry is made up of various content items.  There’s the title (Using Yahoo! Pipes…) and there’s the image, then there’s the actual text.    If you’re reading this on the site, the title is green, the image is flushed to the left and the text is grey.  This is set by ADCOLOG’s HTML code.  However, if you wanted this on your website, the colours might not match.  So, you’d want to get the XML feed from this page, put it on your page and tell it that the TITLE should be orange, the text blue and you don’t want the image.  Because the XML says which bit of the text is the title, your web page could process this.

Another advantage of XML is that you can use it to keep track of changing websites.  If you have an RSS Reader (I use Google Reader) you can subscribe to an XML feed and every time I put a new post on here it will show up in your reader.  If you do this with all the websites you want to check, it means that ratherr than having to spend hours having to check lots of sites, you can see “headlines” of  all the new posts and changes, read the ones you want and disregard the rest.  Dave Briggs has some good tips on organising this.

OK, so we’ve got all these feeds of information going about the web.  Sometimes, you may want to bring them together.  For example, we’re about to launch a new feed for our E-Guides.  As an E-Guide (which is an ACL or WBL E-Champion) you don’t often have time to check lots of feeds.  That’s a job us E-Learning Advisers can take on.  But, there are a number of feeds involved.  Firstly, there is the feed from this blog.  Then there is the feed from the WBL advisor’s blog.  Then there are resources that I’ve spotted, marked on my account, and ones that the WBL advisor has spotted too.  To get every E-Guide to subscribe to all four feeds would be an unrealistic exercise.  Which is where Yahoo! Pipes comes in.  First, you need a Yahoo! account.  After that, go to Yahoo! Pipes and click on ‘Create A Pipe’.  Now, you have a whole list of different options down the left hand side and an empty workspace to the right.  Expand the ‘Sources’ tab and drag the ‘Fetch a Feed’ into the workspace.  Enter the first feed URL into it.  Now do the same again for as Pipes! in actionmany feeds as you want to get.  Next, expand the ‘operators’ tab on the left.  Select the ‘Union’ Module and drag it onto the workspace.  Now, draw a line (click and hold the mouse) from the white circle at the bottom of each ‘fetch feed’ module to the white circle on the ‘Union’ module.  Then draw a line from the ‘Union’ Module to the ‘Pipe Output’.  In the diagram shown, I’ve also added a ‘Sort’ module, which arranges the feed in order of date.  There’s lots of different things you can play with here to sort and alter feeds, if you’re slightly more technically minded.

The result is a pipe that combines these feeds.  By saving the pipe and clicking “Run Pipe” you can then get this as a feed in itself or as a widget to go on your website.  We’ve put it on our E-Guide forum.

It may seem very complicated but it’s actually relatively straightforward. What’s more, it means that the “front end” information the E-Guides get (either by RSS or Email) will be clear and relevant, saving them time in the long run.

It’s worth getting to know these tools, as information flows are becoming more and more important as a tool for learning on the Web.  Information flows are an essential part of the semantic web which we’ll be hearing a lot more about over the coming months and years.  RSS Readers and Yahoo! Pipes are just the start of managing and manipuulating the huge amouunts of information we receive into something useful to help us with our teaching and learning.

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