On Environs

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Environs Logo

Another project Powered By Geek recently did was an entirely Facebook application called Environs. This was our first real foray into the world of Facebook applications. For the Rails side we used a gem called facebooker this application, we also used RoRBook (http://github.com/lwallenstein/rorbook/tree/master) as a base.  Here is the about page written by Lynn about Environs.

You have friends
You are connected to those friends on social services

Because you’re all web 2.0 tastic, you and your friends use, like, a kerbillion social services

We quickly show you what you use, what they use, and where you haven’t connected yet.


Ah, haven’t I already connected with these people already?
Yep… at least once. But while you’re connected to some of your friends through most social services, you’re probably not connected to all your friends on all social services. And maybe that’s the way you like it, which is totally cool.

Also, there might be some apps you’ve thought sound interesting, but you didn’t know if anyone you knew was using them. Which makes sense, because using a social service all by your lonesome is kind of… well, not the point. But we can tell you, hey, 4 people you know are using Brightkite right now. Come on over! You know people here!


Why on earth would I want to do this?
Social services are fundamentally about information. What people like (for example, del.icio.us), what they watch (YouTube) and what they’re doing (twitter). You’ve already decided you want some information on some of your friends. What we do is give you the option of easily expanding the amount of information you can get about those friends. Like, say you follow your friend Mikey on BrightKite, and you know he likes dive bars. Awesome. But what if we told you hes also on flickr, and takes crazy-good photos of taco trucks. You might not have known that, but by expanding the number of services you use to connect to Mikey, you get to learn more about him. Basically, were a match-maker… but for people you’ve already met. Its your choice, though — we give you the option to connect with people on additional services, but you don’t have to connect to anyone on anything.
Screenshot of Environs

Screenshot of Environs

This app was tricky in two ways. First it was the first real Facebook app I have done, which meant there was a large learning curve as things that work just fine with a regular Rails site some times just don’t work with Facebook. Ajax and JavaScript in particular are completely different, and require a “hand roll” approach. This necessitated a lot of trial and error, not to mention the learning curve of what Facebook’s changes to JavaScript effect.

The other tricky aspect of this project was the main aspect of it, the parsing of other services. Each of the other web services (ex. Twitter, Last.Fm, Digg, etc.) have their own format for doing everything. We had to consolidate a parser to read all those varying formats and return the same result set so that it could be displayed. I had done stuff similar to this with iStalkr so I was prepared for gathering and reading all sorts of standard formats (RSS, XML, JSON). How we solved the problem was to create a library module, I initially designed it, but then submitted it to Bruce to help me improve the readability. This is still an ongoing problem, as more and more services are added to Environs I need to investigate their API’s and get them working.

Screenshot of Environs Service Matching

Screenshot of Environs Service Matching

Some services such as Flickr or MySpace are extremely tricky (in fact I’m still working on a way to parse MySpace). This might turn into somewhat of a rant, but services that allow you to set a URL to one thing, but then have a completely different value for tracking users, make it next to impossible for application developers to work with them. Flickr has their login, user id, and url, some queries to their API will accept any of the 3, however others want only the user id. Luckily, Flickr has a way around this because they have an API call that you could provide the piece of the information on the user and have it return the user id. Other services don’t offer this and it makes it a lot harder to get the data we need.

Overall, I think the project turned out pretty well. It’s a work in progress, there are still some services that we need to get working. Also, we’ve got some plans for recommendations that are in the pipelines. It’s a fun project that will only get better in time (at least until someone finally agrees on how to standardize these separate friend’s lists on each site).