10ish five-minute ways to improve your website

IWMWThere’s some speakers to do the conference circuit who recycle the same old material each time they present and if I’m not careful I could turn into one of them! At this year’s IWMW, they held a “BarCamp” session. If you’re already familiar with BarCamps then don’t get too excited as it wasn’t a proper one, but it stole elements of the unconference concept to provide a forum for anyone attending the workshop to get up and talk about something that interests them. The organisers converted one of the 45 minute discussion group sessions into two 20 minute slots and provided nine rooms of various sizes to use.

Since I suggested it, I figured I should support it and put myself down for a session. I was busy preparing for my main parallel session so I didn’t have time to think of anything new, so I recycled my BarCamp North East session and delivered that. In Newcastle I only had a few people turn up so I was very pleased to see the room packed with about 30 people this time (although that included three from Edge Hill, apparently there to give me “moral support”).

I came up with the idea for the presentation after realising there were some really easy things that I’ve added to the site that not many other Universities seem to do. [I should add that I’m not saying we were first or unique with any of the suggestions, just that they’re not all “obvious”]. They include things like adding a link tag to your homepage so that the RSS feeds you provide can be easily discovered and wrapping your page footer in an hCard microformat.

It’s pleasing to note that the feed autodiscovery suggestion has got quite a lot of attention. A couple of weeks ago Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus, UKOLN) highlighted the that few Scottish universities were doing this and having already delivered my session at BarCamp North East I wasn’t too surprised, but one of the innovation competition entries showed autodiscovery is quite rare across UK HEIs. Tony Hirst explains the system on OUseful.info then check out the full name-and-shame list.

Edge Hill comes out fine for the feeds we offer on the homepage with news, events and job vacancies listed. There’s a few HEIs who offer other feeds – open days could be useful (and we have a feed available for it through a tag on the events system) – but the one that caught my eye was the University of Warwick’s recent changes feed which allows you to subscribe to find out when the homepage changes. Better still, they have this for every page in their CMS. Where this falls down is when feed readers like Google Reader just take the first feed in the page from those available through autodiscovery thus subscribing you to the recent changes feed instead of the more useful news feed.

You can see the ideas towards the end of my parallel workshop session slides (where I also went through the list) – skip to slide 41 unless you want to read about some of the “stuff what we’re doing at Edge Hill University“!

The other BarCamp session I went to was about Microsoft’s hosted student email solution, live@edu. A few institutions in the UK are in the final stages of deployment – Aberdeen already have some accounts live. Some aspects of Microsoft’s solution seem a bit less slick than Google’s while I was impressed with it’s potential for integrating with other Microsoft systems.

I really enjoyed the experience of presenting and attending the BarCamp sessions and I’d love to see them extended. My personal view would be to scrap the discussion groups, merge them into a solid block – say 2 hours in the afternoon of day two – and make the types of session clearer, whether they’re technical vs marketing or presentation vs discussion.

Other people talking about the BarCamp sessions:

  • Jeremy Speller: “I like the BarCamp idea – quite a lot of pressure to pack interesting stuff in in 15-20 minutes – but I think the format worked well.”

Use our data

I mentioned previously about some of the feeds we’re providing for news and events and said at the end of the post that we’d be doing some stuff for the Institutional Web Management Workshop. Well it’s finally time that we have to firm up what that stuff is!

Edge Hill – along with the Universities of Aberdeen and Bath – are sponsoring the workshop’s Innovation Competition. For this we’re letting people know what data we have available for people to use in the creation of innovate, lightweight demonstrations of web technologies.

For the Big Brief we’ve restructured several of our systems to allow information to be extracted in different ways. Now as well as viewing web pages, you can use our data the way you want to or access in more machine-readable forms.

Several of these feeds we use internally – for example, the JSON feed of events is used to populate the calendar in the sidebar to show what days events are on.

It’s all work in progress so we’ll be adding more formats in the coming months but I’m really looking forward to seeing the ways people can use information from the website as part of the innovation competition.

Choice Part 7: Bite the hand that feeds you

RSS Awareness DayI meant to blog about this last week but bank-holiday-weekend-fever caught up with me. 1st May was RSS Day – aimed at raising awareness of feeds and how they can be used to stay connected to websites that interest you.

I’ve blogged before about the topic and said then we’d be introducing more feeds in the future. Well we have – you can now subscribe to feeds of news, events and jobs so you can stay right up to date with what’s going on at Edge Hill. In most cases there are multiple feeds available allowing you to narrow down to just what interests you.

If you’re new to feeds then this video from the folks at the Common Craft show to see how they work and can benefit you:

To justify this post being part of the “Choice” series, I should probably say a little more about the developments in the new site. We’re providing feeds initially for areas of the site that are now in databases. The jobs website has been like this for a while but news and events are now structured properly to allow us to create a feed directly from the database. We’re using a plugin for symfony called sfFeed2Plugin which allows easy creation and manipulation of feeds and saves us from having to worry about the finer details of the Atom specification.

We’re going to provide more ways of using our data in the way you want in the future, including some stuff for the Institutional Web Management Workshop in July so stay tuned for more about that.

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