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Washingtonpost.com Teams Up with Readers for Remix, by Tara Calishain

Image: Washington Post Remix

Text source: Information Today
Posted On December 12, 2005

Note: This text summarizes the expectations of an online project by the Washington Post, which is no longer active. The project is worth keeping in mind as a stepping stone and experiment to develop interesting tools for Web 2.0

The Washington Post Co. has launched a new site called Post Remix, described as “the Post’s official mashup center.” Available at http://blogs.washingtonpost.com/post_remix, Post Remix spotlights reader creativity with both washingtonpost.com RSS feeds and other streams of content The Post is making available. The site launched around mid-November, and that’s been plenty of time for interesting content to appear on it. A blog format provides an overview of reader-submitted projects, ordered by date. Among the spotlighted applications are a site that offers Amazon.com book suggestions based on washingtonpost.com content, automated text-to-speech podcasts of Post stories, and a “Tag Cloud” overview of washingtonpost.com content. All these applications use RSS feeds of washingtonpost.com content.

However, The Post branched out beyond that recently with the release of the U.S. Congress Votes Database (http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress). Not only does this site offer a database of every vote in Congress since 1991, it also gives an RSS feed for each active member of Congress. Though the site was announced officially only a few days ago, this project has gotten its own remixers, including an overview of how Minnesota’s Congressional representatives voted (http://garrickvanburen.com/mnrep) and a quick voting overview at another site (http://www.tomaw.com/tomawiki/votes). You might think that the opportunity to use washingtonpost.com content would also be ringed around with lots and lots of restrictive terms of use, but that’s not the case. The Post does ask that all use be personal and not commercial, that it be understood that Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co.) retains rights to all intellectual property in the RSS feeds, and that washingtonpost.com may incorporate ideas into its own site, but that’s it. There are no fees for the use of the feeds, nor are there restrictions on how often or how many times the feeds may be accessed. While washingtonpost.com does not have keyword-based RSS feeds (which is a shame) it does offer a huge selection of RSS feeds—more than 125 in many different categories. A full list is available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/rss/index.html.

Why is The Washington Post doing this? Normally data mashups are associated with service sites, like Yahoo! Maps, or with application program interfaces (APIs), like the range of APIs offered by Google. Why is a content-centered site like washingtonpost.com encouraging people to noodle around with its RSS feeds? “We were influenced by the BBC Backstage project,” said Adrian Holovaty, editor of editorial innovations. He started working at washingtonpost.com in mid-September. “We figured, ‘Hey, let’s do this. It’s a great idea and will only have a positive effect on our site.'” And from readers’ reactions, it has indeed been a big hit. According to Holovaty, more than 50 blogs wrote about the votes site even before it was teased on the washingtonpost.com front page. This is only the beginning. Some parts of the washingtonpost.com

Post Remix site mention APIs—are they really in the future? “I’d certainly like there to be APIs,” said Holovaty. “It’s just a matter of figuring out specifics on which APIs developers would want and designing them so that they’re flexible enough for people’s needs.” The idea of a content site opening up its RSS feeds for experimentation is one thing, but the idea of APIs is quite another. That a major newspaper like The Post is giving such a formal way for programmers and other users to access its content, and use it externally in other applications, is quite exciting.

What is also exciting is how much washingtonpost.com is getting done with just a couple of people. “The votes project was made by just two people—[me] and Derek Willis, who works for the news-research department at The Post,” said Holovaty. “Once we made a prototype, ideas and feedback came in from across the company, and the design department helped make it look good. It was a small team, which I think is very important.” washingtonpost.com is able to make useful applications that generate content available to external users, without having huge numbers of people dedicated to it. In fact, Holovaty notes that at the moment he’s the only one who works on small- to medium-sized database projects full-time. The future holds many possibilities. Of course, there are the existing projects, like the enthusiastically hailed votes database (“The ink is far from dry on this project.”), but Holovaty can see other things on the horizon as well: “More database projects, developed rapidly using Python and the open-source Django Web framework. More journalism via computer programming.” The more the merrier. Now, let’s hope it can all be as accessible, as extendable, and as remixable as what The Washington Post puts together.

Tara Calishain is the editor of ResearchBuzz, a columnist for Searcher, and the author of several Internet books, including Google Hacks.

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