Portrait of Edd Dumbill, taken by Giles Turnbull

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What I make

expectnation
a conference management web application


XTech Conference
a European web technology conference

OpenID and microformats support on XTech site

Thanks in no small part to the advocacy of Simon Willison, I've just OpenID-enabled the XTech web site.

OpenID log in box on Expectnation

Users can now create their accounts using an OpenID, or associate an OpenID with an existing account.

A single-sign on solution like OpenID solves an important problem for us, as most people tend to interact with our conference web sites in only one or two time periods each year. While we've gone to the trouble of making retrieving a password easy, there's still the mental burden on the user of setting up the account and noting it down somewhere.

As a measure of the impact of this on me personally: I habitually save registration confirmation emails in a certain mail folder. Since 1997 I have collected no fewer than 572 of these, and I'm sure some have been missed!

One other cool thing about OpenID is that finally I can get the identity I wish to have. No longer do I have to be a compulsive early adopter of every service just to get the name edd. (Well, as long as said service integrates OpenID of course!) Personal branding is an important attractive aspect of OpenID.

Implementation

Implementing OpenID using the Ruby ruby-openid gem was quite straightforward, as was the logical integration into our user models. I've not been the only one following this path recently, as illustrated by this post on Rails OpenID integration from Dan Webb.

The harder problem of deploying OpenID lies in making the user interface work well: ultimately that will have a huge influence over its uptake.

We've made a decent first go of it in Expectnation, but I'm sure we'll evolve and improve it over time. The main puzzling thing is how obvious to make the OpenID facility, given its relatively small take-up right now. We don't want to confuse normal users too much by using it.

Microformats

When I did my behind-the-scenes piece on the building of the XTech schedule last week, one feature I didn't discuss was the support for microformats we have in the schedule and on the session pages. If you use a tool such as Operator, you can easily save talk times to your calendar while reading the schedule.

XTech schedule microformats

I'm personally a little late to the microformats party. Being a fan of pragmatic RDF, I didn't see much need for microformats right away. However, with tools like Operator I can honestly say that the use of microformats does enhance the XTech schedule.

My impressions of microformats (in particular hCalendar and hCard) from using them are mixed. One the plus side, it was very easy to do. On the negative side, I found them restrictive in the sense that for the metadata to be present in the hCalendar object, it needs to be part of the HTML presentation.

So, while microformats are meant to be about making human readable data useful for computers, they can have a tail-wagging effect on the human markup. Let me elaborate.

In the conference schedule there is a grid overview. For readability here we want to keep the details down to a minimum in each box. There is definitely no need to repeat the date of each presentation when you can see there's a grid per day.

But also we want to have microformats available in the page so users can use the grid to pick off talks to add to their calendar. The only details you currently get from the microformat are those you physically include inside the div marked as vevent. This means we can't embed the full details, such as the talk description. It also means I indulge in some dubious markup practices (an empty abbr element) in order to get the date and time into each hCalendar object.

It seems to me that this could be ameliorated by more intelligent user agent behaviour. Each of my hCalendar events is given a URL. At the end of that URL is a full description of the event, using microformats. So, as long as I reference the URL in a summary page, the user agent can beetle off and pull down the full information, in much the same sort of way that FOAF uses the rdfs:seeAlso property.

So, remove the expectation that microformats provide complete data, and I'm sold.

Other schedule features: iCal, Upcoming.org

Of course, we have iCalendar support in the XTech schedule, so you can subscribe conventionally using iCal, Evolution or a similar program. Aaron Straup Cope took the iCalendar, and uploaded each event into Upcoming.org. If you look at the upcoming events tagged xtech07, you see the results of his work.

This foreshadows some of the social elements we plan to add to Expectnation itself: indicating your intent to attend a talk, and adding comments to it. As a program chair I'm finding this quite fascinating to watch.

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