Year for Productivity: Session 10: Task Automation

year_productivity_graphic_10All the tasks that we have to keep up with when using web applications would exceed the amount of time and attention that any one of us could handle.  It follows,  therefore,  that the more we can automate tasks we need to do,  the better.   Moreover,  the web is,  if not a series of tubes (as the late Alaska Senator Ted Stephens once claimed),  it does rather resemble an almost infinite series of silos.  Each web page or service is independent,  which means if we want to do the same thing to more than one silo we have to repeat the task.   Or at least that was true before mashups (Quote below from this Wikipedia article).

A mashup, in web development, is a web page, or web application, that uses and combines data, presentation or functionality from two or more sources to create new services. The term implies easy, fast integration, frequently using open application programming interfaces (API) and data sources to produce enriched results that were not necessarily the original reason for producing the raw source data.

For example,  HootSuite became available in 2008 and serves as a dashboard for controlling one’s social media accounts.  It is often used by companies or other organizations to coordinate their brand.  Posterous also started in 2008 (though sadly has just shut down)  as a blogging platform that allowed one to disseminate the same blog content across sevices such as Blogger,  Facebook,  Twitter,  Live Journal,  etc.   Rebel Mouse also works with social media to provide a newsletter-like presentation.   Organizations can use it to display their social media content,  and students could use it to create a newsletter for an assignment.  Particular operating systems have,  for some time,  tied together the software in their own ecosystem.   Outlook and Onenote work together as do various Apple products.  New apps that integrate web services are announced frequently and trying to name them all would take up a month’s worth of blog posts.

Currently the winner and still champion of task managers,  however,  is IFTTT (If this then that).   As of this writing,  Ifttt offers connections between 61 web services (called channels).   The code that connects two channels is called a recipe,  which consists of a trigger channel (the “if” part),  an action,  and the result channel (the  “that” part).    For example,  if I post to my WordPress blog, and want to  send it automatically to Twitter or Facebook or Evernote, then WordPress would be the trigger channel, Twitter, Facebook and Evernote would be the result channels and the action would be sending the WordPress post to the three result channels.

Channels include all the usual suspects,  such as the four just mentioned,  but also a variety of cloud storage apps such as Dropbox,  photo sharing services including Instagram and Flickr.   There are more unexpected channels such as date/time,  weather,  email,  and recently the Belkin WeMo brand controllers for home appliances – so you could,  for example,  set your lights to come on at a certain time.   Nor are you limited to your imagination.   Ifttt users have been very generous in sharing their recipes.  So generous,  in fact,  that one drawback of the service is that many new users of Ifttt wind up enthusiastically activating so many recipes it adds to the confusion rather than decreasing it,  with an overload of,  for example,  emails with the latest free books in Amazon,  or free tunes.

Another drawback is that while the service is advertised as simple to use,  it helps to see it in action first.   In the readings section are some quick tutorials to view first before trying Ifttt out yourself.  Note:  I have a Google alert for ifttt, and there are a huge number of articles about it, but the majority are blog posts with simple introductions to ifttt.  So the readings consist of only a few articles or videos that are the best I’ve seen at showing how to use ifttt.

The last drawback that I want to discuss today is that there is a dearth of research-oriented channels.   Certainly Evernote,  Dropbox,  WordPress,  even Twitter and Facebook have legitimate academic uses.   For example,  one might send new RSS items from a saved database search to a specific notebook in Evernote with specific tags.   Still,  the service could be more useful for academic research.

Recently, an exciting  announcement from ifttt developers  has promised a forthcoming enhancement which will allow web services with open APIs (for example, Mendeley and Zotero to name only a few)  to create channels as well.   Enhancements such as this make the future of task automation for academia look bright,  and it is exciting to contemplate what it might look like in ten years’ time.   Will universities set up their own instances of Ifttt,  for example,  which could tie together the Learning Management System,  research databases,  secure cloud storage,  research management tools,  and notebook software?   It will be fascinating to see what develops!

Selected Readings:

Ekart, D. F. (2012).  Tech Tips for Every Librarian.  Computers in Libraries, 32(4), 36-37.

How-To Geek.  Program Your Online Life with If This Then That.

Jiminez, C.  When Lazy Can be Productive. Includes video tutorial.

Price, E.  (2012)  How IFTTT is Changing the Way We Do Things on the WebMaxhable post with background on the company and its planned future directions.

Slaughter, R.  (2011) .  Review of If-This-Then-That  Includes list of pros and cons.

Woodward, M.  How to Use IFTTT to Save Time and Automate Behind the Scenes.

Just for Fun:

Buck, S. (2013).  14 Hilarious If This Then That Recipes.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

(1)  View one or more of the above tutorials. Reflect on ways in which you might be able to use ifttt to automate repetitive tasks that you regularly perform.

(2)  Sign up for an IFTTT account.

(3)  Browse recipes for services you use the most and activate at least one.

(4)  Create one recipe of your own.





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