Unions and web aggregators

Another day, another aggregator. I’m getting quite into union aggregator sites of late, and think there could be something in this cheap and cheerful technology that could really be powerful for unions.

The latest experiment is Union Newswire. It collates and republishes links to union press releases from 19 UK organisations. The idea is to make a one-stop shop for journalists, bloggers or students following developments in unions. Rather than remember to check 19 sites, it gives you a choice of ways to stay up to date with the news you need from each of them, depending on how you want to work – web, email, RSS or Twitter.

Don’t poke it too hard, as it will likely fall over though! Whilst I’ve had it running in secret for a few months, I only got around to working out one of the bugs today, that was causing problems for the shared RSS feed, and hence preventing Twitter syndication too. It’s still running on the web 2.0 equivalent of sticky tape and bluetack, but at least every function now seems to be working for at least some of the time.

It’s powered mainly by WordPress, using the excellent FeedWordpress plugin. Many unions provide a press release feed on their site, but as some don’t, I had to use the brilliant (but slightly temperamental) service Dapper to scrape feeds from press office pages. The feeds are tidied where needed in Yahoo Pipes or Feedburner, and all brought together. WordPress’ Subscribe2 plugin handles email digests, and Twitterfeed helps publish it on to Twitter.

So barring some contributions to the tip jars of plugin devlopers, a domain, and a few bob for shared web hosting, it’s not cost anything for the technology. A bit of fairly painless work to set it up and it should now chug along happily on its own (until someone changes the way their feed works). It’s a similar idea with my spare-time union blog aggregator TIGMOO.co.uk, which monitors around 120 union related blog feeds, to make a regularly changing home page with next to no day to day maintenance.

So far so good, but you may be forgiven for thinking that press release or blog aggregators are not something uniquely useful to unions. That’s right enough, but being able to take feeds, make feeds of things that don’t have feeds yet, and mash them up into a portal could have much more application.

The more obsessive may have noticed one of my half-finished hobby projects, LaborGeek.org. Unlike Union Newswire, which matches a bigger set of like for like items to add its value, LaborGeek matches disparate items around a theme. Using the same technologies, it mixes up blog posts, forum topics, shared bookmarks and keyword news searches, to make an ecclectic reading list, (loosely) themed around unions and Information Communications Technology. There’s now a place to follow this rather niche topic that means it doesn’t matter if you take your eye off any of the individual resources involved.

I think there are opportunities to become the place which provides the space for discussion around a certain topic (and also for those topics to be bigger than the nerdy ones that interest me…).

Suppose a union is trying to organise a new sector (or maybe a GUF wants to push for an agreement with a multi-national employer, or a union campaigner wants to build support around a broad industrial issue). If a union could make a rapidly updated portal, which combines the latest news on that sector from multiple sources, along with interesting perspectives from some industry-related blogs, useful web links, and relevant news specifically from that union, and parcel the whole thing up in a way that’s easy to follow and share (RSS, Twitter & Facebook syndication and so on), it could help them to ‘own’ that issue, and be the natural place for people to turn to.

Now, unions have something of a constraint when it comes to the web, which is that they mostly don’t have a lot of cash or staff available to maintain sites and tools, certainly not rapidly updated and comprehensive portals. Which is where the aggregator comes in. Choose your sources well and set it running, and it can act as a magnet around your chosen issue, with much less human editorial input that a traditional magazine type site.

The sources will like it as it will increase their traffic, and the users will value the wider community it forms around the issue. The union gets to have this activity happening on its own turf, where it can present its own ideas to a relevant and engaged audience. What’s not to like?

Pls to share (thanks!):

5 thoughts on “Unions and web aggregators

  1. Lovely work, John. I think blog (and tweet) aggregators have a lot of potential as showcasing the ‘river of discussion’ that’s now online to people fairly new to this stuff, and your site looks lovely too. The email subscription is really handy.

    Though much simpler and working purely off the RSS feed itself, I’ve been playing with a similar kind of aggregation of business-related blogs (very early days, I should say) at http://dev.bis.gov.uk/businessblogs/ (based on http://www.publicsectorblogs.org). I also knocked together a little something which aggregates tweets from key stakeholders over at: http://dev.bis.gov.uk/twitlab/bistweets

    What’s your policy on sharing the kind of code you’ve developed there? Does the TUC open source its stuff at all?

  2. Hi Steph,

    Thanks for kind words, which almost made up for the fact that when I got in this morning I found the bottom half of the sidebar borked 🙁

    We don’t release any code, but this is because we don’t really develop any. I don’t have anything like the skills to, and when we hire contractors to tailor stuff for us, it’s generally so specific that if we took out our context it would have so many holes it would be of no use to anyone (considered doing it with a petition tool we did for wordpress, but decided it would have been twice the work to get it into a shape anyone else might have use for). This site runs purely off 3rd party services and Codex-listed plugins (Feedwordpress & Subscribe2 mainly).

    Like BIS Tweets especially. I started a twibe for union tweets as my half hour fiddling with an aggregator couldn’t get past the Twitter API login and I gave up.

  3. Hey Steve, nice to hear from you again.

    That’s a nice example. People normally think of portals as being big things with high traffic, but I reckon long tail portals have a role too. Getting the right content to a small group of people in the way they want to receive it could do a lot for building community and strengthening groups and interests.

  4. You can read news feeds by using google reader or newscombined.com . I like using online news rss reader websites instead of desk top ones because you can access them any where.

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