Finding OpenSearch

Back in July at the IWMW 2008 conference — during those heady three days of summer we experienced in Aberdeen — I was introduced to a specification called OpenSearch, by someone I’d been following on Twitter who introduced himself as Mike Nolan of Edge Hill University, near Ormskirk.

What is OpenSearch?

If you use Mozilla Firefox or Internet Explorer 7 then you may already have encountered OpenSearch without knowing it. You may be familiar with the built-in search box within Firefox:

Screenshot of the Firefox search box

Well, OpenSearch is the technology that enables folks to provide plugins for that search box so that you can search their website from within the comfort of your browser’s own search box.

In other words, the reason that you can select from Google, Yahoo! Amazon, Creative Commons, eBay.co.uk and Wikipedia from your search box’s drop-down menu is because each of these companies created an OpenSearch description (plugin) file which has been installed within the search box on your browser.

Create your own

OpenSearch allows you to do the same for your own website, and the good news is that it’s fabulously simple. All that is required is:

  1. A short, well-formed XML file, written following the OpenSearch specifications
  2. A link to that file, within the <head> element of your webpage

This week I created three opensearch plugins for the University website. One for searching the whole site, one for searching the Current Students section, and another for the Current Staff section of the site.

If you’re using either Firefox or IE7 then head over to www.st-andrews.ac.uk and you’ll notice that your search box glows a little, indicating the presence of a new OpenSearch plugin. (Check out Edge Hill while you’re at it, they’ve got one too.)

OpenSearch cheat sheet

While I was researching the OpenSearch specification I also took the trouble to create an OpenSearch cheat sheet — it’s spread over 2 x A4 pages, and the type is fabulously small, but it captures just about everything that I discovered was useful for me to successfully create and test the OpenSearch description documents that I created.

Feel free to download it:

  • OpenSearch cheat sheet 1.5 (PDF, 50 KB)

Scottish Web Folk

Tomorrow I’m giving a short presentation at the Scottish Web Folk meeting in Glasgow on OpenSearch, Microformats and adding search box hint text using the jQuery library.

My slides for the talk are embedded at the top of the page, and are released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 UK:Scotland Licence.

A very creative year so far …

Right Twin - week 19
Right twin at 19 weeks

In many ways 2008 has been a very odd year for me, for many reasons. Of course it opened with the IVF procedures that led to Jane discovering that she was pregnant, that led to us discovering that she was pregnant with twins.

During the last six months we’ve been filled with delight, trepidation, excitement, nervousness, wonder, a whole spectrum of emotions. And here we are now at week 27.

For those who don’t know, a full-term pregnancy is generally regarded to be 40 weeks. Twins, we’re told, generally make an appearance early, round about weeks 35-37. So we could have another 10 weeks; we could have more, we could have less. We’ll continue to trust God, and wait in quiet expectation.

I was born to reflect and not shine

It’s been a funny year where I’ve blogged a whole lot less, but gone out and done a whole lot more — but then didn’t come back here and share it with you all … sorry about that, but I guess I’ve needed that time to reflect. I’ve felt myself go deeper within myself — go into my ‘cave’, Jane might say — and reflect on where I am, who I am, and what it means to be expecting children: two, at once!

I’m not entirely sure where I am, or what to expect, it’s all a very new experience for me. But one thing I can say with certainty is that I’m really looking forward to meeting the boys now, and I’ll certainly give it my best shot.

I learned a lot of good things from my own dad, hopefully I can pass some of that love and laughter on to my own boys, and make up some weird nonsense of my own to hand on to them!

I just really wish that Dad was still here to meet them too when they arrive. (Again, for those who don’t know: my Dad had a triple brain haemorrhage in 1983, was really quite ill for about 15 years and died shortly after New Year in 1998. Ten years ago: another contribution to the oddness of 2008.)

New design

But 2008 also opened with another creative process: the redesign of the University of St Andrews website, which was launched to the public (having been in what I guess we could call ‘closed beta’ if we wanted to go all Web 2.0 with y’all) last night.

Here’s a screenshot of the external homepage:

Screenshot of University of St Andrews website
Screenshot of the new design for the University of St Andrews website.

“But… didn’t you just launch a new design last year?! Why do you need another new design?” Quite a few folk have asked us that over the course of the last few months, and it’s a good question to ask.

When we did the first relaunch of the University site it was more than just a new visual design, it was a completely new website: new design, new architecture, new way to update and manage the content, new … everything.

We designed and built the site according to the excellent wireframes that had been developed in collaboration with us by Dynamic Diagrams, an information architecture company from the States. They were great, we learned a lot from them, and for me that was one of the most exciting parts of the project.

Listening

But like any design, the then-new design was a “best bet”, it was the closest that we got to what we perceived we would need from the site. So we built it, launched it and let it settle in for six months while all the time listening for where the design wasn’t working properly, where we needed more flexibility, and crucially: what the users were asking for.

We got a little more explicit by inviting both staff and students to feedback sessions over lunch, where we bribed them with food to tell us what they really thought of the site, what they liked about the site, what they felt could be done better, and what was missing.

I went into those sessions expecting to feel very defensive, but came out of all three sessions feeling quite buoyed and encouraged. It felt good to listen to our ‘customers’, and from the feedback from those sessions mixed in with our own collation of ideas from helpdesk calls, as well as our own thoughts and observations we set about redesigning the site. And this time we didn’t touch the structure (much), we looked instead solely at the visual design and its functionality.

New design

We wanted something that was:

  • Clean, fresh and contemporary
  • Not too far from what we already had
  • Easy to maintain, and extend
  • Compatible with the most number of browsers (old and new)

The site itself is built on the Blueprint CSS framework, with a number of tweaks, which helped us address most of these requirements.

What was particularly impressive about Blueprint was how it allowed us to ‘sketch’ designs in code faster than we were able to do it with a graphic design package. And nothing looks more like a web page than a web page!

So for the last seven months or so I’ve been diligently working on the code, often times taking it home to work on in the evenings and at the weekend. I’ve working on it some nights past 01:00, and some mornings before 05:00.

It really has been a labour of love, but then … I believe in the University of St Andrews, and I love my job. St Andrews is where I did my undergraduate degree, I feel an incredible loyalty to the place and sincerely want to do the best for the University.

Launch

So at five pm last night we scheduled the new site to launch … and ran away!

At home we waited with baited breath while the new design for the University of St Andrews website was published to the public web server, and then breathed a sigh of relief that we’d got most of the planning right.

There were a couple of sections (sport, music, UTREC) that we’d overlooked and had published out with the wrong design, but on the whole it went without a hitch.

… until there was a serious power outage in St Andrews during the afternoon today and all our systems (including the web server) went down! You can’t have everything … like a new design and the ability to look at it!

And relax!

More time please!

Time

It’s just as well that my organization skills are honed because I’ve been seriously short of time these last couple of weeks. I’m considering putting in for a transfer to Mercury, whose length of day is 58.646 Earth days.

At the moment, as you probably know, I’m part of a two-person Web team. We’re currently putting the finishing touches to a new website design for the University. We’re now nearly four weeks overdue on our first deadline.

As Douglas Adams said “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

So last week, and particularly this week it’s been heads down and we’ve been working flat out to get the code finished and in a state that we can plug into TerminalFOUR SiteManager, our content management software tool. That process began today.

I’ve been bringing code home to work on as it’s the only way I was going to get it done; for example, I was up until 01:15 last night fixing bugs and generally tidying things up. A special mention to the unbelievably awkward Internet Explorer 6!

So, I can’t see myself getting much serious blogging done this week. I can’t seem to switch off very easily from this project … but once it’s done, once it’s into the system things will calm down somewhat and I can relax again.

Here’s to next week …

We wants a training day!

Diary

[Long sorrowful exhale]

It’s been a long day today. It felt like I was never going to get home once I eventually got on the road. Those familiar ten miles seemed to stretch on forever. How did it take me about 30 minutes to drive home?!

The day’s first obstacle was getting into work before nine am. We have quite a relaxed setup in our office and find people wandering in any time up to about 11am! So long as you put in the hours and get the job done.

On average I seem to arrive around 9:11. I know, that is pretty exact. But that’s what time I clock when I get into the office. It probably means that I should leave the house eleven minutes later than I normally do, but I’m usually not out until about 17:30 every day anyway, so they’re getting their money’s worth.

Training day

But today I had a training course (09:00 – 15:00) which was hindered only in the minor detail that it was on a product that I have no involvement or (to all intents and purposes) understanding whatsoever: e:Vision or SITS:Vision.

It’s the Web front-end to our student record system called SITS.

The training session was on how to create Vistas (views on the data). Which is really useful if you understand what data is there, and why you’d want to create a view on it. Which I didn’t, so understandably felt at somewhat of a disadvantage.

I was there to understand the system enough to know how to customize its look and feel; it uses simple HTML 4 and CSS. They covered that in about five minutes.

At the end of our six hours training session.

And then finished off by saying that if we wanted to customize the whole look and feel of the product, essentially ‘re-skin’ the whole shebang — which we do — then we’d best go on a training course. But not this one.

Ah … oh well. Still it was a pleasant day in an overly warm room with some nice colleagues and university-made sandwiches. Tuna and olives anyone?

CMS Upgrade

Add to that the fact that our enterprise content management system, the mighty TerminalFOUR SiteManager, was being upgraded from version 5.3.0017 to version 6.0.0014 and you might understand why my colleague and I were a little distracted.

Looking on the bright side, I did get Firefox Portable 2.0.0.14 installed on my personal network space as well as the usual array of essential add-ons (Firebug, Web Developer, Twitterfox, Tab Mix Plus, Google Toolbar, etc.).

Friends Reunited

This evening I had intended to spend being efficient and productive. I actually spent it mostly replying to emails.

The weird thing is that in the last week or so I’ve been contacted by numerous friends — and not via Facebook!

Tom and Rory both live in New Zealand, in Christchurch and Auckland respectively, and are both coming back to the UK this year for 12 months. Margaret Jane is now an English teacher in my old school in Selkirk!

Today I phoned an old school friend Kevin, who lives in Glasgow. Remarkably the mobile phone number he’d given me years ago still works. Had a lovely catch up. I do miss his friendship. We used to spend hours sitting on his bedroom floor — his bedroom was on a balcony above the sitting room! — listening to metal (Flotsam & Jetsam, Megadeth, Metallica, Iron Maiden) and it was he who introduced me to Senser, Portishead and a bunch of other cool sounds.

And now to bed … tomorrow’s going to be another crazily busy day. I’ve got some website code that I need to explode and deposit in our content management system. And a sermon to write by Sunday morning.

p.s.

The title of this post comes from a sketch on The Million Pound Radio Show, which you can download here in MP3 format: Pirate Training Day (2.3 MB).

Scotland on Rails — three months on

The JRuby Guys at Scotland on Rails
A presentation by the JRuby Guys (Charles Nutter and Thomas Enebo) at Scotland on Rails.

This is a post that I’ve had sitting in my WordPress drafts since early April about the Scotland on Rails conference that I attended, actually the same weekend that Jane and I discovered that she was pregnant … so that made it a memorable event.

It’s been quite useful to come back to it after three months, because some things have settled in somewhat. I’ve had the chance to reflect quite fully on my experience of that two day conference (over a Friday and Saturday) and realise what I really took from it that has been valuable.

Initial response

This was my initial response, written a couple of days after the conference:

Excellent

In many ways the conference was excellent:

  • Great location and venue (South Hall Complex, Pollock Halls in Edinburgh)
  • Very well organised
  • Interesting, knowledgeable and passionate speakers
  • Friendly delegates
  • Plenty of space (both physically and in the timetable) to mill about and meet with folks

Disappointing

However, in many ways I personally found the conference disappointing

… and that’s as far as I got. Now we’ll never know.

Seasoned reflection

What I struggled with mostly was simply my inexperience with the Ruby on Rails (often abbreviated to just ‘Rails’) framework and Ruby as a language. So I sat through presentation after presentation that went into the nuts and bolts of the framework/language, and entirely over my head.

What I went there hoping to get a sense of was what sort of projects Rails could be used for within our university setting. I guess I was looking for more of a Show and Tell kind of stream of talks. Wow me with what cool and funky projects you’ve been using Rails for.

Instead it felt like, in many ways, a conference for über-geeks. The opening keynote presentation was about the new features in the next version of Rails; but in microscopic detail. It was like having an interest in rally cars and going to a conference about rally cars, but the opening speech being about how they manufacture the nuts, bolts and components that make up the engine.

The second keynote speech the following day, by David A Black was — in stark contrast — inspirational. It was deep, artistic, philosophical and simply inspiring.

The other notable presentation, for me, was by The JRuby Guys. They were approachable, entertaining and very knowledgable. What interested me most was that JRuby is essentially a “Java powered Ruby implementation”. It allows you to run Ruby (and Ruby on Rails) within a Java environment. Our servers are mostly Sun machines, which have Java built-in, which means that if we wanted to adopt Rails for any projects this would be an excellent way to deploy them with as few hiccups as possible.

Agile

But despite the numerous presentations that went entirely over my head (I thought MVC was a music and video store rather than a programming architectural pattern) the one thing that I took away was a real respect and appreciation for Agile software development and Test/Story-Driven Development (TDD/SDD).

The examples of agile that were shared in the various groups and presentations made perfect sense to me, I could see the practical uses of it in my own work at St Andrews. That’s what I ultimately got out of the Scotland on Rails conference; well, that and a free t-shirt! Oh, and the O’Reilly stall made a bob or two from me.

Interestingly at a recent staff meeting we’ve agreed to look more closely at Agile. I’m looking forward to that, and I have the Scotland on Rails conference to thank most sincerely for that.