The Ups and Downs of RSS Feeds and What I Did To Overcome them… (For Now) Pt. 1

For the past few days I’ve been rained out of the video shooting that I had been planning to do. I decided that this would be a good time to develop a few more skills in understanding RSS feeds for both my blogging and digital signage work. The skills will probably come in handy when I get back to work.


It became necessary for me to learn about RSS because we decided RSS feeds would provide the best content backbone for a digital signage project we were working on at Ryerson University. After a lot of work I thought we had developed a system that employed Twitter and Yahoo Pipes that met our needs. But over time Twitter has not proved to be a consistent service for RSS feeds. For some reason Twitter’s integration with Yahoo Pipes was changed without notification. It was to the point where my Yahoo Pipe that I employed stopped working. I had to use the RSS output from Tumbler’s Micro Blogging site as the RSS feed to my WordPress blog to get around the problem. Now I find what I devised to be complicated, convoluted and the combination is not working to my satisfaction. So I decided to explore other alternatives to generate RSS feeds.

I won’t go into the gory details of my first efforts creating the Twitter Yahoo Pipes (documented here) but I found Twitter’s 140 character limit to be ideal for Digital Signage applications. As a cloud service Twitter automatically provided the policing to limit the text in digital signage posting and once the message was posted to Twitter it automatically generated an RSS feed that Ryerson’s digital signage system could pick up and display. The feeds only problem was that it would add the account name to the head of the post. The service I discovered to fix this problem was Yahoo Pipes. Pipes which is a free mash up tool, and a pre-made pipe that would eliminate the account name from the Twitter feed and re generate a new feed that could feed the Digital Signage system (and my blog). As I mentioned earlier it worked great for the longest time and then stopped working. All attempts to fix it have been difficult given Twitter’s irregular operating schedule and unannounced changes to its services.

The Downs Of RSS

For something called Really Simple Syndication, its something that is really difficult to author (or at least find out how to author). When I first went to the net all I could find were sites that would tell me how the files were formatted. I had trouble even finding the simplest tool to help me create an RSS file from scratch. Even a trip to Toronto’s Worlds Biggest Bookstore was no help in finding a good book on RSS.

I finally learned– after much reading and fusing– that an RSS file is little more than a standardized XML text file that is placed on a central server –usually a web server–. Because its standardized other devices can read and extract elements of the data contained in the text file. Hence the formatting is important so the precise information that one wants from the file can be extracted accordingly such as into Ryerson’s Digital Signage application.

Finally Some Authoring Programs!!!

When I work I like to keep things simple if I can. Given that my days plans were rained out I finally had the chance to look for some simple authoring programs.

The best program I found was actually a live web RSS Feed Creator application put on-line by the University of Mississippi. What is good about it is it creates an RSS feed on the fly that I could cut and past into Notepad. I could then save it manually as a .rss file and sent to my web server for testing. What I liked aboutthe webpage was that I could see the data being added to the RSS file in real time. This helped me immensely in better understanding the formatting of RSS files. I did a quick test using the website and Tristana Reader and the output seemed to work fine. Another bonus is that the Java code found on the webpage is quite editable. I used it to create a personal wepage that would create an RSS feed.

I also I tried a number of desktop based RSS authoring tools. RSS Builder (Freeware) has a built-in FTP client that allows for the RSS file to be downloaded to ones website. It authors in RSS 2.0 and having tested it, I know it creates RSS feeds that work. RSS Builder also allows one to save and reload existing files for updating before being republished. If you don’t like freeware I found Tristana Writer to be very good with similar features to that of RSS Builder.

Other Authoring Tools Available To Call Upon

Other programs that I came across while looking into authoring programs included:

The Ups

After playing with these tools for some hours I ended up gaining a much greater practical understanding of RSS Feeds and how they are generated. So what did I do to overcome my problem with Twitter and Yahoo Pipes? I came across an obscure post on the root of the problem and I found a solution. I’ll cover that in my next post.