Competition is Good

For over two years, I’ve been running Planet Westminster. It’s a simple site which aggregates blog postings from all UK MPs. I built it in an afternoon (based on my software Perlanet) and have tweaked it here and there since then. I always thought that it would good to have it working well before next year’s election campaign gets under way as I think that blogs will be an important part of that election.

This morning, I see that I’m not the only one with that idea. Blogminster is doing the same thing. And the annoying thing is that it seems to be doing it better than me. Not only does it just look nicer than my site (I never claimed to be a web designer!) but it has some really nice features – for example the ability to show just the blogs of MPs for just one party. They also have more MPs on their list than I have – it’s been a while since I did one of my sporadic trawls to find new MPs’ blogs. But that’s ok, I can just steal details from their list.

But I really need to put some effort into improving my site. Some things I’d like to do:

  • Make it look prettier
  • Just display the latest entry from each MP
  • Have filtered pages for each party
  • Have a separate page for each MP showing previous entries
  • Have an option to not display all of each entry (some MPs can write a lot)

There are also some things I need to work out with the parsing of the data and the formatting of the output.

Some of these improvements will also be useful to other people using Perlanet. Some of them are probably going to need to be custom built for this site.

It’s clear that I got the site to a “just barely usable” state and have largely ignored it since. I’ve proved that the concept works and is useful, but it’s not really in a suitable condition to be shared with the world. That needs to change.

If you have any interest in getting involved in fixing the site, then please let me know. I’m particularly interested in anyone who can make it look nicer.

Local Planets

Over the last few years I’ve written a few times about how I’ve been building planets. A planet is a web site which aggregates web feeds on a particular topic and republishes them as a combined web site (almost certainly with a combined web feed as well). One of my earliest planets was Planet Balham which combines feeds about Balham, the area of London where I live.

The idea of using the internet to bring together local communities has been gaining a lot of traction recently, so I’ve been doing a bit of work on Planet Balham firstly to improve the design and secondly to make the content as interesting as possible. I’ve also promoting it a bit and, as a result of that work, someone suggested to me earlier today that a Planet Streatham might also be useful. For those of you who don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of London geography I should probably point out that Streatham is the area to the east of Balham.

I have a pretty good system in place for building planets quickly so in my lunch break I threw together a quick prototype for Planet Streatham. And then (because I was on a roll) I did Planet Tooting and Planet Clapham too.

Of course, the problem with building planets is finding good content. For Balham, I have some local knowledge and I’m pretty happy with what I have[1]. For Streatham, Tooting and Clapham I have less local knowledge and, to be honest, less inclination to research the subject. But I’ve discovered that you can actually build a decent local planet with just a few standard feeds. And those are what I’ve used for the new planets. I think these would be a good start for any local planet. The great thing about them is that it’s easy to customise them for any other location.

In all cases, I hope it’s obvious how to customise the  link.

Automated searches aren’t without their problem, of course. Since I’ve been following Google’s news search for “Balham”, I’ve learned more than I really wanted to about Nebraskan basketball player Chris Balham. But that’s only to be expected and the “real” results far outweigh the problems. Initial results indicate that the problem might be worse for Planet Tooting. Tuning the search terms – perhaps to include “London” – might be an improvement.

So I have basic planets for Streatham, Tooting and Clapham. I don’t intend to spread my empire any further. But I’d really like to see more local planets like this springing up. I’ve already had a couple of people contact me on Twitter about creating others. There’s already a Planet SE16, but there’s no reason why every part of London shouldn’t have one.

The technology isn’t hard. My planets are built with my own software, but I expect pretty much any language will have some kind of planet application available. I’ll write in more detail later this week about how I’ve built mine, but if I’ve inspired you to build one, please let me know and I’ll start some kind of directory.

[1] Still interested in adding more though, let me know if you know of a good local feed that I’m missing.