Automagic Map of #opened12 Attendees

As registration filled up for OpenEd 2012, I began to wonder where people were coming from, and what kind of representation we were getting across the globe.

Step 1 – Geocoding the Attending Organizations

When people registered, we did not collect physical address info, just names, email addresses and organization names. Still, I thought, that has to be enough, right?

I knew that using a query like would return CSV values for that location, yet I couldn’t think of a simple way to turn an entire list of organization names into a map (this was one of those “I’m bored in this meeting and want to do something in 5 minutes” exercises.)

Enter the network to the rescue, mainly in the form of Tony Hirst (who I knew would know the answer) and Alec Couros. Tony pointed me to a post he had written earlier this year that highlighted the Google doc function =ImportData. By using that function and concatenating the Google Maps API query string with the placename/organization name I already had, it really was simple to get all of the organizations geocoded to then place them on a map.

Two caveats

  1. Google spreadsheets limit the use of the =ImportData function to 50 times per workbook, not sheet, so with around 170 distinct names to geocode, there was a bit of futzing around to put these in different workbooks, run the function, then copy/paste the resulting geocodes into a master sheet.
  2. Automatic geocoding based on organization is not an exact science – using the names exactly as entered in the registration forms did result in 140 good addresses out of 170, but the rest either returned no results, or else in a few cases bad results – BCcampus, the organization I work for, was placed somewhere in the Straights of Tawain! Still, that’s about an 82% success rate with no effort, and the resulting ones were easily fixed by replacing the org name with either a city name or specific address.

Step 2 – Mapping these coordinates

Once you have the resulting sheet of organization names and longitude & latitude data from the first step, the next step is fairly easy. I had stumbled upon Google Fusion Tables myself, an experimental feature aimed at combining datasets and visualizing them in new ways.  Tony mentioned these would handle my data automatically, and sure enough it did, importing the existing Google spreadsheet with one click, and with another turning it into a map.

But I actually ended up going with another approach suggested by Alec Couros, MapAList. MapAList is a 3rd party service that also works off of Google documents, and a simple wizard allows you to select your spreadsheet, worksheet and values you want to map and generates a map along with nice html embed code to use. I think either way works fine, I just ended up liking this one as Fusion’s URLs confused me and I ended up sharing one on twitter that pointed to the unvisualized data.

Below is the resulting map. The big learning here for me – the power of the =ImportData function. Without something like this, you end up having to write some code (not complicated code, but code nonetheless) that steps through your list, generates a http request for each one to the API end point, receives the resulting response, parses the response and compiles the outputs into some format you can use. This is not a super complicated program, but 95% of end users aren’t going to do this. But the above approach seems really feasible, and given the availability of HTTP based APIs that return CSV or JSON, opens up a huge realm of data to non-programmers who can still handle a spreadsheet (which, as you’ll recall, was the home computer’s first killer app.) – SWL

Alternatives to Google Moderator

A little while ago I posted a query on twitter:

If you haven’t seen Google Moderator, it is a fantastic system that you can use to gather and vote on questions before (or during) a meeting or class. Unfortunately, using this US-based app for an upcoming meeting will likely land me in crap, so I set out trying to find alternatives.

There are definitely a number of similarly hosted alternatives; Uservoice, GetSatisfaction, while not identical, can facilitate this sort of thing, as could Ideascale and YouSuggest. Problem is, they run afoul of the same set of alleged privacy bugaboos that means I can’t use Google Moderator (and frankly none of them are quite so sweet as it). (N.B. I say “alleged” because the irony is that the meeting I want to elicit questions for is precisely on this question of BC institutions abilities to use 3rd PArty US-based software!)

So I kept looking for Open Source or at least locally-hostable options and found the following ones too:

None of these are perfect replacements for what Google Moderator does – the ones focused on customer feedback/software development tend to be overly busy and not clearly dedicated to the issue of crowdsourcing questions to be answered live during a meeting/class. So I will keep looking. But I thought I would share what I found in case it was helpful. If you know of a good alternative please let me know! – SWL

Using Google Maps Image Viewer to Post Large Images without Resizing

Apparently within the geography community (and I expect some other places) this trick is well known, but it was new to me and so thought it worth sharing. Using the free Google Maps Image Cutter developed at University College London you can cut up very large images into ’tiles’ and then use the standard Google maps viewer interface to pan and zoom on it. The default is for the picture to wrap, but if you look at the source of the HTML page, change one value prevents this, as can be seen in the example I tested it on here.

Many of the pages I readpointed out that a service like Zoomify already does this. True enough, but a) other than for the most basic package, that is a paid for service b)Zoomify is a Flash-based approach, sometimes that’s not what you want c) this seems to me to give me more control, and can you ever have enough options on how to do things like this? Isn’t that part of what we educational technologists are supposed to do – listen to needs and respond with appropriate solutions?

(As an aside, I found this via another very good post, “How to embed almost anything on your website.” It struck me while reading this that it behooves any institution that still dares to force an LMS on its instructors and learners to create a resource like this, an inventory of techniques that work to bring stuff from outside into that LMS. Banning Javascript includes simply isn’t an option; I understand the risks, but we need to figure out better techniques for the people who should own these concerns (security administrators) to monitor them instead of making end users bear the burden. ) – SWL

Why Google Can Offer So Many Apps

Ever wonder why Google can offer so many different new applications? Well aside from having superb engineers working for them, great ideas, and lots of money, there is also one other dirty secret. They don’t offer any support!

Seriously, have you ever tried access support for ANY of Google’s services? I have tried, repeatedly, on a number of different products (Sites, Toolbar, Custom Search Engine) only to be thrown into a neverending maze of Google groups and the shittiest documentation this side of Microsoft (which is saying something). I consider my information literacy skills to be pretty high, but I am just left baffled by Google’s attempts at support.

Don’t get me wrong – I love most things Google and will continue to use many of their offerings. They “get” the web at a deep level and continue to innovate in exciting ways. But a support company they are not. Dealing with the morass of discussion forums and shoddy documentation would almost have you believe it is intentional… – SWL

Google Reader – Where is your support for authenticated feeds?

The main organization I work with uses Confluence as its internal wiki platform (and possibly for blogs too, we’ll see how that progresses). I have never been in love with it as a platform but on the principle that with social software, who is using it is often more important than what they are using, I’m trying to get behind it.

But it is frustrating the heck out of me for a number of reasons. We’ve CAS‘ified Confluence, which is great for single sign-on, but it means that any ‘protected’ space now requires authentication to get the RSS feed. And honestly, a wiki without RSS feeds is a non-starter for me.

Enter Google Reader. I made the switch about a year ago and now it is fairly entrenched in my workflow. Except…Google Reader doesn’t do authenticated feeds. So now I’m faced with either switching RSS readers again (ugh) or getting daily wiki updates via email (are you serious? At least Greader could support the email-to-RSS feature like Bloglines used to, and no, the Gmail to RSS hack wouldn’t work in this case).

Frustrating. Added to that, Confluence as a blogging platform leaves a bit to be desired, and to deal it’s inelegant posting workflow (10 clicks compared to my 1 or 2 now) I am trying out some XML-RPC based clients (because it does, at least, support that through a plugin). Hence, really, the reason for this post, to see if the ScribeFire (formally Performancing) plugin for Firefox will do the trick and provide a simply, free way of posting between both my WP blog and Confluence. Wish me luck. So far the experience hasn’t been stellar, with a memory leak and other bugs plaguing what should be a simple process. – SWL

My search is over – Yahoo Pipe to constrain search to linked to pages

Wouldn’t you know it, a few seconds after I finish commenting on Tony Hirst’s blog that my personal quest has been a way to dynamically constrain a search to only those pages linked on any webpage, I actually read the entire post and learn that he had already done this! A simultaneous ‘Doh!’ and ‘Hooray!’

From a usability perspective what I’ve always wanted to see was this as a bookmarklet that passes the link the URL from whatever link containing page you’re on, so I’ll look into that, but Tony has demonstrated how this is seemingly quite straightforward with Yahoo Pipes.

Why is this important to me? Think of all of the collections of links out there, people who have painstakingly vetted links on a particular subject, collected only those they felt were important. With one click you can search just those linked sites. It can definitely be argued that this always runs the risk of missing stuff outside of those constrianed sites, but there’s times when limiting the context is useful and important. – SWL

Google Scholar & OpenURL Firefox Extension

As soon as Google Scholar hit the streets there was quite a stir in the library community and various ponderings about how to tie it into existing library systems, so it was inevitable that someone would develop this, but this quickly!!! A Firefox extension which, when you perform a Google Scholar query, also sends queries to your institution’s OpenURL resolver, and in cases where your University owns a licensed copy of the cited article creates a link directly to it. Too cool! – SWL

Use Voidstar’s “GoogleNews-to-RSS” here

Julian Bond at Voidstar (the man who brought you the original RSSify) has created a simple PHP script that converts Google News searches to RSS (I say ‘simple’ but I doubt I could have written it). You can use it from his site, but he’s asked folks to download and install in on their own servers to help conserve bandwidth and server demands. I’d been using it and so installed a copy on my own server. It took about 30 seconds. If you want you can use it too, though this isn’t intended as an open invitation to the entire internet. Maybe’s there’s another way to do this (I’ve seen the email alert service for Google news) but I haven’t found it yet. Depending on what kind of stuff you’re looking for, google news can be a pretty decent source. Here is a look at the feeds I’ve created (the ‘Google Feeds’ folder). – SWL

highlighting bizarre search terms in monthly newsletter

o.k., last one from this site, I promise, but this really tickled my fancy – at the top of their monthly newsletter the folks at Web Lab highlight “This month’s weirdest Googling that brought people to the Web Lab site.” Not only is this a funny use for this underused data that most of us get from our web usage analysis programs, but by citing the exact words again on their site they basically increase the likelihood of being found again with this bizarre terms (though David Lynch seems to rank supreme as the ‘czar of bizarre’) – SWL