UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

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JISCMail’s Facelist and Enhanced Support for RSS

Posted by Brian Kelly on 21 Apr 2010

The JISCMail Facelift

As announced yesterday on the JISCMail Owners list the JISCMail home page has been updated – and I’m pleased to see that it now provides a personalised interface, with the list of subscribed groups displayed once you have logged on.  It is also interesting to observe the high profile the service gives to Facebook, Twitter and RSS as can be seen from the rotating advertisement illustrated in the screen image below.

JISCMail Home page

JISCMail's social sharing servicesIt seems that when you view an individual message you can share the post on a large range of social bookmarking and sharing services such as Facebook, Twitter, Slashdot, Diigo, Bebo, etc. as illustrated.

Whether such a large number of services is useful to the end user may be uncertain. It will also be interesting to see how this works for closed groups. But perhaps this facility demonstrates a move towards allowing great sharing and public reuse of the contents of the JISCMail mail archives – an approach which I would warmly endorse. A few months ago I attended a meeting which discussed future developments for the JISCMail service and there was broad agreement on the benefits which could be gained by allowing the archives of messages to be more easily reused outside of the JISCMail environment.  Allowing messages to be bookmarked  and reused in other Social Web sites is a useful first step.

This development follows on from an announcement in the March 2010 issue of the JISCMail newsletter of a facelift to the individual mailing list archive pages. Again I am pleased to see the developments.

The home page for individual lists is much cleaner than it was previously.  It provides separate areas for recent messages and message archives,with the right hand sidebar being used for tools related to the list and the left hand sidebar providing links to a number of other JISC services (although I have to say that I suspect that such links won’t be of interest to most users – since the home page for lists may be where users typically arrive rather than the JISCMail home page I feel the list of subscribed lists would have provided a more relevant use for this area of the page).

Enhanced Support for RSS

The development which is of most interest to me, however, is the RSS Feeds and Sharing links which provide access to RSS 1.0 and 2.0 and Atom feeds for posts to the list. This is illustrated for the JISC-Repositories list below (see menu of right hand side of screen).

The JISCMail Web interface for the JISC-Repositories list

I have subscribed to the RSS feeds for a couple of the JISCMail lists I subscribe to. However I found that only that the RSS Reader on my iPod Touch contains only  the first few lines of each item. Reading the JISCMail newsletter article about the upgrade to the LSoft software which is used by the JISCMail service I find that:

LISTSERV automatically creates RSS abstract from the text part of the message. By default, LISTSERV uses a maximum of 500 and a minimum of 250 words for an implicit RSS abstract.

You may wonder why I would wish to have JISCMail messages delivered to my RSS Reader. The answer is that I normally subscribe to JISCMail daily digests and although the format of the digests is fine for viewing on my PC, I can’t access the content on my iPod Touch (or on my Macintosh where I receive the error message “Mail was unable to open the URL “cid:1925@JISCMAIL.AC.UK“).

But perhaps I should accept such limitations which make reading JISCMail message slightly irritating, but not an insurmountable barrier. Of greater concern is the limitation the limit places on reuse of RSS by other applications besides RSS readers. It could be useful, for example to be able to use a list archive’s RSS feed as a generic structured output format to allow the contents of a list to be visualised by a service such as Wordle.

An example of a Wordle cloud for the JISC-Repositories list is shown, which uses the JISC-Repositories RSS 1.0 feed as the data input: possibly an interesting visualisation of the topics being discussed on the list, but its usefulness is undermined by the arbitrary truncation of the content of the individual messages. (Note that you can view the latest Wordle cloud for this list).

Wordle file for JISC-Repositories JISCMail listThis example provides a visual illustration of how RSS feeds for mailing lists could be used to provide functionality which is not provided by the mailing list service itself.  Other examples could be provided by RSS processing tools such as Yahoo! Pipes.  It might be possible, for example, to take an RSS feed from a list (or a number of lists), filter them using Yahoo Pipes filtering capabilities and feed the output into other applications which process RSS. Tony Hirst’s OUseful blog, for example, is full of examples showing various ways in which RSS can be used to provide new insights into content.

It would also be useful if the JISCMail service allowed RSS feeds to be provided for multiple views of the mailing list archives.  I recently described how WordPress provides RSS feeds for the various views  of the page the user may be looking at (the standard reverse chronological order, normal chronological order, monthly views, category views, etc.)

To be fair, though, the JISCMail service isn’t alone in providing a limited use of RSS.  I had hoped that the University of Bath’s Opus repository service, which is based on the ePrints software, would support a variety of full RSS feeds but the RSS feeds for my papers and UKOLN papers are both limited to 10 entries.

So I feel that JISCMail is on par with the version of EPrints which I have used – it’s good to see both providing RSS feeds but I hope that future releases of the software with provide greater support.

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