A faculty member in the Biology department teaches a course on the conservation of endangered species. He was looking for a way to engage his students by showing them that the topic under discussion is a contemporary issue, with related events being reported on with some frequency.
Our first step was to identify news feeds from Google and other web sites reporting on wildlife trafficking events. We uses Yahoo Pipes to collate these feeds into a single RSS feed and then displayed that feed using a widget embedded in the course’s web site. As far as visualizing the worldwide impact of such events a text RSS feed only goes so far. It was then that we came up with the idea of “it would be great if we could see these stories on a map” and “it would be great if this could be done automatically”.
There are a few tools out there that attempt to do this automatically but they are either cumbersome to use, slow to respond, cannot be embedded, or just don’t look very good. So we decided to prototype our own version.
Using ColdFusion to process the RSS feed into individual news items we then pass those items to OpenCalais. OpenCalais is a free service that performs “semantic analysis” on any text that is passed to it. Basically, it pulls out and tags people, places, institutions, and any other meaningful piece of information from the text. Once OpenCalais processes on of our news items ColdFusion then scans the response to see if any “geonames” were identified. If so, we pass the geoname back to OpenCalais and it conveniently returns us the coordinates of the location.
A next step for this project would be to allow for faculty/student self-service for new news feeds and embedding in their own blogs, wikis, LMS etc.