Power User: Feed yourself a helping of RSS

John McCormick

Blogs are still hot, and now video bloggers running their own news shows online are the latest thing on the Web. But serious online information gathering is still fairly limited to direct research or Really Simple Syndication feeds from reliable sources such as GCN. Let's look at RSS.

With RSS, just as with search engine results, there is often too much information pushed to your computer. Unlike most search hits, RSS feeds can be useful and highly targeted if you select your sources with care and learn to manage the information.

Fortunately RSS, the Extensible Markup Language-based technology that can be read with special software or some of the latest browser and e-mail programs, lends itself to easy manipulation, and there are a number of interesting things you can do with RSS. Many (but not all) are easily accessible, even if you lack any real technical knowledge.

For example, I have a private Web page that I've packed with dozens of RSS news feeds. It's essentially a customized newspaper that changes as often as I like and focuses on issues such as security, science and medicine, and government. My sources include GCN, NewScientist.com, The Times of London (www.timesonline.co.uk), that other Times in New York (www.nytimes.com) and others that are fairly obscure. But what if you don't have your own URL where you can configure such a page? News aggregators such as RSSmix.com and Feedjumbler.com combine multiple news feeds in a single RSS feed.

You can also convert almost any Web page into an RSS feed, allowing you to monitor changes instantly. This can be useful for watching suspected terrorist sites or checking for unauthorized changes to your own site that might indicate hacker activity. See the online tool RSSxl (www.wotzwot.com/rssxl.php) for an example of how to do this. Note: It's not for novices.

And if you just can't come to grips with the paperless office concept, RSS2PDF.com can nicely format your feeds for printing.

Specialized feeds

What useful RSS feeds are out there for receiving very targeted information? Anyone with homeland security or other public safety concerns might want to check out Incidentlog.com, which lets you link to RSS feeds of police logs. This isn't just for stolen cars either; you might find it useful to monitor incidents at passenger or cargo terminals, even refineries. I expect this service to really grow, but already there are 10-minute feeds for some major departments such as the California Highway Patrol, with hourly, daily and weekly feeds for a couple of dozen more agencies.

Hubmed.org has a news feed for medical reports from the National Institutes of Health's PubMed Central archives. The departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, plus many state health departments, all use PubMed and might find Hudmed.org's feed a better way of keeping up-to-date than logging onto PubMed every day or week.

RSSauction.com generates a customized eBay auction feed that's delivered through RSS or e-mail. Many federal and state agencies use eBay to buy rare items and sell anything.

Pennsylvania generates $20,000 to $50,000 per month from stuff people left at airports because they couldn't get it through security.

Does your job involve the latest inventions or technology? Are you part of government research and development? Then you've got to check out FreshPatents.com, which includes applications published even before the grant/deny decision by Patent and Trademark Office. Set up a quick RSS feed on the site to monitor all the developments.

Do you spend lots of time away from the office? Litefeeds.com can help you send standard RSS news feeds to your phone, BlackBerry or other mobile device. The account is free, and the site says it optimizes the feeds for delivery to handhelds.

If you just can't get enough of this topic, you can visit my ever-growing resource site at Helpdotcom.com or find an RSS feed of RSS hints and tips at channels.lockergnome.com/rss. There's also a helpful online RSS workshop at rssgov.com/rssworkshop.html.
Just remember that these are cutting-edge tools, and some may change or disappear by the time you read this. Fortunately, it appears that RSS itself will be useful for a long time.

John McCormick is a freelance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at [email protected].


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