I bang on quite a lot on this blog about ways in which data can get published over the web and one of the most interesting ways, in my opinion, of publishing data in a structured manner that is well understood is to use the iCalendar specification. There isn’t much information in the world that doesn’t have some concept of “when” so iCalendar is a great way of distributing that information.
You have probably used iCalendar at some point without even knowing about it. All files with a .ics suffix are iCalendar format files and that is why you can happily import them into Outlook, Hotmail Calendar, Google Calendar etc… where they can be parsed and have the semantic data (when, where and who) extracted from them. Importing of iCalendar format data is really only half the trick though; in my opinion the real value of iCalendar-formatted calendar is the ability to subscribe to them.
Subscribing has a simple benefit over importing but that single benefit is of massive importance: a subscriber to an iCalendar calendar can periodically check to see if any updates have been made and, if they have, automatically update the local copy. The real benefit to the user is the productivity gain – a single update to an iCalendar means that all subscribers are automatically made aware of the change and there is zero effort on the part of the subscriber; as my former colleague Howard van Rooijen is fond of saying, “work smarter not harder” – nowhere is this edict more ably demonstrated than subscribing versus importing of calendars.
If you want to read some more thoughts about iCalendar then go and read my past blog post Calendar syndication - My big hope for 2009's breakthrough technology or better still go and seek out Jon Udell who speaks very authoritatively on the issue of iCalendar.
With this subject of iCalendar on my mind I was interested to discover (via Steve Clayton’s blog post Download the world cup fixtures) that the BBC had made a .ics file available containing all of the matches in the upcoming World Cup. As you can probably guess this was a file that was made available so that it could be imported into your calendar of choice. It had one obvious downside though, right now nobody knows who is going to be playing in the knock-out stages so the calendar looks like this:
with no teams being named after 25th June. How much more useful would this calendar have been if the BBC had made it possible to subscribe to the calendar instead, thus the calendar could be updated with the teams for the knock out stages when they are known and every subscriber would have a permanently up-to-date record of all the fixtures in their calendar. Better still, the calendar could be updated with match results as well or perhaps even post a match report from the BBC sport pages; when calendars are made subscribable a sea of opportunity opens up for distribution of information.
So with that in mind I have decided to go one better than the BBC. I have imported their .ics into a brand new Hotmail calendar and made it publicly available at the following URLs:
The link you’re really interested in is the second one - click on that and it should open up in your calendar software of choice. Or, if you want to view it in an online calendar such as Hotmail Calendar or Google Calendar, copy and paste that URL into the appropriate place. Some people have told me they’re having trouble with the iCalendar link in which case hit the HTML link and then click “View ICS” at the resultant web page:
If you use Hotmail's calendar then you can simply hit the "Subscribe to this calendar" button.
I shall endeavour to keep the calendar updated throughout the World Cup and even if I don’t you’re no worse off than if you had imported the BBC’s .ics file so why not give it a try? If I do keep it up to date then you will have a permanent record of the 2010 World Cup available in your calendar. Forever. If you have your calendar synced to your smartphone then you’ll be carrying match reports around with you without you having to do a single thing. Surely that’s worth a quick click isn’t it?
If you have any thoughts let me have them in the comments below. Thanks for reading.
UPDATE: It turns out I have done the BBC a bit of a disservice. Their calendar IS subscribable and they WILL be updating it as you can read about at Download the World Cup fixtures. My only criticism is that (a) they haven't gone to any lengths to explain the difference between importing and subscribing nor (b) pointed out the distinct advantage of subscribing. Regardless of this I will still be updating my calendar and I might also recruit some amateur journos to do a spot of match reporting as well!