Data Standards?

Today’s general data standards are akin to yesterday’s HTML/CSS browser support standards. The first rev of Gecko (not to be confused w/ the original Mosaic/Navigator rendering engine) at Netscape was truly standards compliant in that it did not provide backwards compatibility for the years of web content that had been built up; that idea made it an Alpha or two into the release cycle, until “quirks-mode” became status quo. The abyss of broken data that machines, and humans, generate, eclipsed web pages back then, and it’s an ever present issue in the ATOM/RSS/XML available today.

Gnip, along with social data aggregators like Plaxo and FriendFeed, has a unique view of the data world. While ugly to us, we normalize data to make our Customers’ lives better. Consumer facing aggregators (Plaxo/FF) beautify the picture for their display layers. Gnip beautifies the picture for it’s data consumption API. Cleaning up the mess that exists on the network today has been an eye opening process. When our data producers (publishers) PUSH data in Gnip XML, life is great. We’re able to work closely with said producers to ensure properly structured, formatted, encoded, and escaped data comes into the system. When, data comes into the system through any other means (e.g. XMPP feeds, RSS/ATOM polling) it’s a rats nest of unstructured, cobbled-together, ill-formated, and poorly-encoded/escaped data.

XML has provided self describing formats and structure, but it ends there. Thousands of pounds of wounded data shows up on Gnip’s doorstep each day, and that’s where Gnip’s normalization heavy lifting work comes into play. I thought I’d share some of the more common bustage we see, along with a little commentary around the category of problem

  • ![CDATA[]] is akin to void* and is way overused. The result is magical custom parsing of something that someone couldn’t fit into some higher-level structure.

    • If you’re back-dooring data/functions into an otherwise “content” payload, you should revisit your overall model. Just like void*, CDATA usually suggests an opaque box you’re trying to jam through the system.
  • Character limited message bodies (e.g. microblogging services) wind up providing data to Gnip that has escaped HTML sequences chopped in half, leaving the data consumer (Gnip in this case) guessing at what to do with a broken encoding. If I give you “&a”, you have to decide whether to consider it literally, expand it to “&”, or to drop it. None of which was intended by the user that generated the original content, they just typed ‘&’ into a text field somewhere.

    • Facebook has taken a swing at how to categorize “body”/”message” sizes which is nice, but clients need to do a better job truncating by taking downstream encoding/decoding/expansion realities into consideration.
  • Document bodies that have been escaped/encoded multiple times, subsequently leave us deciphering how many times to run them through the un-escape/decode channel.

    • _Lazy_. Pay attention to how you’re treating data, and be consistent.
  • Illegal characters in XML attribute/element values.

    • _LAZY_. Pay attention.
  • Custom extensions to “standard” formats (XMPP, RSS, ATOM). You think you’re doing the right thing by “extending” the format to do what you want, but you often wind up throwing a wrench in downstream processing. Widely used libs don’t understand your extensions, and much of the time, the extension wasn’t well constructed to begin with.

    • Sort of akin to CDATA, however, legitimate use cases exist for this. Keep in mind that by doing this, there are many libraries in the ecosystem that will not understand what you’ve done. You have to be confident that your data consumers are something you can control and ensure they’re using a lib/extension that can handle your stuff. Avoid extensions, or if you have to use them, get it right.
  • Namespace case-sensitivity/insensitivity assumptions differ from service to service.

    • Case-sensitivity rules were polluted with the advent of MS-DOS, and have been propagated over the years by end-user expectations. Inconsistency stinks, but this one’s around forever.
  • UTF-8, ASCII encoding bugs/misuse/misunderstanding. Often data claims to be encoded one way, when in fact it was encoded differently.

    • Understand your tool chain, and who’s modifying what, and when. Ensure consistency from top to bottom. Take the time to get it right.
  • UTF-16… don’t go there.

    • uh huh.
  • Libraries in the field to handle all of the above each make their own inconsistent assumptions.

    • It’s conceivable to me that Gnip winds up stating the art in XML processing libs, whether by doing it ourselves, or contributing to existing code trees. Lots of good work out there, none of it great.

You’re probably wondering about the quality of the XML structure itself. By volume, the bulk of data that comes into Gnip validates out of the box. Shocking, but true. As you could probably guess, most of our energy is spent resolving the above data quality issues. The unfortunate reality for Gnip is that the “edge” cases consume lots of cycles. As a Gnip consumer, you get to draft off of our efforts, and we’re happy to do it in order to make your lives better.

If everyone would clean up their data by the end of the day, that’d be great. Thanks.

More Examples of How Companies are Using Gnip

We have noticed that we are interacting with two distinct groups of companies; those who instantly understand what Gnip does and those that struggle with what we do, so we decided to provide a few detailed real-world examples of the companies we are actively working with to provide data integration and messaging services today.

First, we are not an end-user facing social aggregation application. (We repeat this often.) We see a lot of people wanting to put Gnip in that bucket along with social content aggregators like FriendFeed, Plaxo and many others. These content aggregators are destination web sites that provide utility to end users by giving them flexibility to bring their social graph or part of their graph together in one place. Also, many of these services are now providing web APIs that allow people to use an alternative client to interact with their core services around status updates and conversations as well other features specific to the service.

Gnip is an infrastructure service and specifically we provide an extensible messaging system that allows companies to more easily access, filter and integrate data from web based APIs. While someone could use Gnip as a way to bring content into a personal social media client they want to write for a specific social aggregator it is not something we are focused. Below are the company use cases we are focused:

  1. Social content aggregators: One of the main reasons we started Gnip was to solve the problems being caused by the point-to-point integration issues that were springing up with the increase of user generated content and corresponding open web APIs. We believe that any developer who has written a poller once, twice, or to their nth API will tell you how unproductive it is to write and maintain this code. However, writing one-off pollers has become a necessary evil for many companies since the content aggregators need to provide access to as many external services as possible for their end users. Plaxo, who recently integrated to Gnip as a way to support their Plaxo Pulse feature is a perfect example, as are several other companies.
  2. Business specific applications: Another main reason we started Gnip was that we believe more and more companies are seeing the value of integrating business and social data as a way to add additional compelling value to their own applications. There are a very wide set of examples, such as how Eventvue uses Gnip as a way to integrate Twitter streams into their online conference community solution, and the companies we have talked to about how they can use Gnip to integrate web-based data to power everything from sales dashboards to customer service portals.
  3. Content producers: Today, Gnip offers value to content producers by providing developers an alternative tool that can be used to integrate to their web APIs. We are working with many producers, such as Digg, Delicious, Identi.ca, and Twitter, and plan to continue to grow the producers available aggressively. The benefits that producers see from working with Gnip include off-loading direct traffic to their web apis as well as providing another channel to make their content available. We are also working very hard to add new capabilities for producers, which includes plans to provide more detailed analytics on how their data is consumed and evaluating publishing features that could allow producers to define their own filters and target service endpoints and web sites where they want to push relevant data for their own business needs.
  4. Market and brand research companies: We are working with several companies that provide market research and brand analysis. These companies see Gnip as an easy way to aggregate social media data to be included in their brand and market analysis client services.

Hopefully this set of company profiles helps provide more context on the areas we are focused and the typical companies we are working with everyday. If your company does something that does not fit in these four areas and is using our services please send me a note.

What We Are Up to At Gnip

As the newest member of the Gnip team I have noticed that people are asking a lot of the same questions about what we are doing at Gnip and what are the ways people can use our services in their business.

What we do

Gnip provides an extensible messaging platform that allows for the publishing or subscribing of events and data from across the Internet, which makes data portability exponentially less painful and more automatic once it is set up. Because Gnip is being built as a platform of capabilities and not a web application the core services are instantly useful for multiple scenarios, including data producers, data consumers and any custom web applications. Gnip already is being used with many of the most popular Internet data sources, including Twitter, Delicious, Flickr, Digg, and Plaxo.

How to use Gnip

So, who is the target user of Gnip? It is a developer, as the platform is not a consumer-oriented web application, but a set of services meant to be used by a developer or an IT department for a set of core use cases.

  • Data Consumers: You’ve built your pollers, let us tell you when and where to fire them. Avoid throttling and decrease latency from hours to seconds.
  • Data Producers: Push your data to us and reduce API traffic by an order of magnitude while increasing distribution through aggregators.
  • Custom web applications: You want to embed or publish content to be used in your own application or for a third-party application. Decide who, or what, you care about for any Publisher, give us an end-point, and we push the data to you so you can solve your business use cases, such as customer service websites, corporate websites, blogs, or any web application.

Get started now

By leveraging the Gnip APIs, developers can easily design reusable services, such as, push-based notifications, smart filters and data streams that can be used for all your web applications to make them better. Are you a developer? Give the new 2.0 version a try!

That Twitter Thing

Oh, crap, Eric’s gone and written another long post…

Since we publicly launched Gnip last week, we’ve been asked numerous times if we can integrate with Twitter or somehow help Twitter with the scaling issues they are facing.  We can, but we depend on Twitter giving us access to their XMPP feed.

We are huge fans of Twitter so we’re patiently waiting for that access.  In the mean time, the questions we’ve received have prompted us to explain two things: (1) How we would benefit Twitter and anyone who wants access to Twitter data and (2) Why – if you are a web service – it’s worth integrating now with Gnip rather than waiting either for (a) Gnip to integrate with Twitter or (b) you to get as popular as Twitter and have scale issues.

Let’s address the first issue: How we would benefit Twitter and anyone that wants to integrate with Twitter data.

Twitter has found that XMPP doesn’t scale for them and as a result, people are forced to poll their API *a lot* to get updates for their users.  MyBlogLog has over 25,000 Twitter users that they throw against the Twitter API every 15 minutes.  This results in nearly 2.5 million queries against the API every day, for maybe 250K updates.  Now add millions of pings from Plaxo and SocialThing and Lijit and heaven forbid Yahoo starts beating up their API…

If Twitter starts pushing updates to us, via our dead simple API or Atom or their XMPP server, we can immediately reduce by an order of magnitude the number of requests that some very large sites are making against their API.  At the same time, we reduce the latency between when someone Tweets and when it shows up on consuming sites like Plaxo.  From 15 minutes or more to 60 seconds or less.

We expect that Twitter has their collective heads down and are working around the clock to buttress their infrastructure, and it’s unlikely that they’re going to do anything optional until that’s sorted out.  Unfortunately, “integrate with Gnip” probably falls into the optional category. We expect, however, that at some point Twitter will start opening up their data to more partners once they feel like they have their arms around their infrastructure.

If you run a web service and integrate with Gnip today, you’ll automatically be able to integrate with Twitter data once they give us access.  Presumably you won’t have to wait in line to get direct Twitter integration.  In addition, you’ll have immediate access to all of the other data providers that we integrate with. Such as  Delicious, Flickr, Magnolia, Get Satisfaction, Intense Debate and Six Apart.  For example, only took Brightkite 15 minutes to integrate our API and start pushing data to our partners via us.

Now for the second topic.  Why – if you are a web service – it’s worth integrating with Gnip now rather than waiting either for (a) Gnip to integrate with Twitter or (b) you to get as popular as Twitter and have scale issues.

All things considered, it’s best not to end up in Twitter’s position.  They have a ton of passionate users (I’m one of them) who want reliable service and don’t have infinite patience.  The old startup cliche of “these are problems we’d like to have” is carp.

You don’t want to be in the position where your business suddenly takes off and your infrastructure falls over because people are banging your APIs to death.  You don’t want your most passionate users calling for mass exodus.  It’s better to take a few minutes to start pushing notifications to Gnip now than when you’re doing 20-hour days rebooting servers.

You also don’t want to be in the position that your company takes off and you suddenly get throttled by an API provider.  Nothing is worse than have to pull data sources because you’ve over-polled and the host decides to turn off the spigot.  Start pulling notifications from Gnip and feel secure that you’re only asking for data when there’s something new.

I still use Twitter every day.  Don’t try to kid me; I know you still do too.  Let them get on with their work and rest assured that we’ll integrate with them the instant we get the okay from them.

The WHY of Gnip: Stop Building What Everyone Else is Building

Let me say this up front:

I have a tendency to ramble. Why use a sentence when a paragraph will suffice, right? As a result, I limit myself to 100 word posts on my sporadically updated personal blog. I’ll follow suit here, with only occasional excursions into longer territory. This is one such post.

I’ll try not to ramble too much…

Data portability, the ability to create content on one web site and derive value from it on other sites and applications, has become one of the defining characteristics of what is commonly referred to as “Web 2.0″. An emerging class of services are taking advantage of this data to create entirely new products, including social aggregators (Plaxo Pulse, MyBlogLog, FriendFeed), social search (Lijit, Delver) and communications dashboards (Fuser, Orgoo, Digsby). Each of these services is predicated on the belief that user-generated content is the raw material upon which great companies can be built.

Data portability, via RSS or ATOM or XMPP or open APIs is neither difficult nor complex. These are known problems with straightforward solutions and open standards. But each connection between two services (e.g. MyBlogLog and Flickr or Plaxo and Digg) is a custom integration, requiring at least one of the parties to set up a custom channel to access, process and ultimately make use of the transferred data. As companies seek to create robust solutions built upon dozens or even hundreds of data feeds, engineers face an exponentially growing problem of building and maintaining these custom communication channels. Simply put, data portability is a big hassle.

Crucially, data portability has become the cost of entry for these services. It is not enough for a social aggregator to claim the most sources or a social search company the biggest pool of data. The leaders in this space are focused on filtering and presenting data in useful ways; out of a billion pieces of data, they seek to connect you with the appropriate information at the appropriate time. All of the work building and maintaining back-end data portability services comes at the cost of building better front-end features that draw and satisfy users.

That’s where Gnip comes in. We’re dedicated to making data portability suck less, by reducing the effort required to collect and manage the data upon which these awesome new services are being created. Gnip aims to simplify the process of aggregating, standardizing and maintaining large pools of data, ultimately making he process as simple as uploading a list of your users.

Our first service is a solution to a key problem facing data portability implementations (Jud will give you the details in just a moment). We at Gnip believe in direct solutions to painful problems, and as a result, our first service isn’t fancy. But it’s quick to integrate, it scales like a monster and it uses a variety of web standards; we believe we’ve solved this particular problem pretty well. Over the coming months we’ll roll out additional direct solutions to painful problems, and before long we’ll have a bona fide platform for pushing data around the web.

We’re incredibly excited by the bounty that Web 2.0 has created. We are living with an embarrassment of riches in terms of shared information and experiences. But it’s overwhelming. I personally believe that Web 3.0 will herald a return to the individual — story, picture, friend, experience — because in aggregate, that which has great meaning often becomes meaningless. So it’s up to these awesome new services to take the Web 2.0 bounty and find for each of us those few things that will fundamentally enhance our lives. To give us something meaningful.

I hope that we at Gnip can build a foundation that enables these awesome new services to focus all of their attention on making great things. We’ll happily lay plumbing, mix concrete and smelt tin to see that happen.