DailyDev: ProPublica’s ChangeTracker

June 8, 2010

DailyDev thumbnail logo -- day 5ProPublica’s award-winning ChangeTracker mashup, which it uses to follow edits to The White House’s website, can still be cloned to monitor the site of your choice, just be sure not to try to follow this tutorial, as I attempted to. The Yahoo! pipe it says to use is busted. Here are the revised steps, still largely based on the aforementioned tutorial.

  1. Create a free Versionista account.
  2. Log in to Versionista and enter the url of the page you want to track in the blue box at the bottom of the page. Click “Monitor this URL.”
  3. You’ll be taken to a new page. With a free account, you can monitor up to four more URLs if you wish. If they’re from the same site you just entered, add them here. If they’re from a different site, complete step four, then repeat steps 2 through 4 for the other site.
  4. Click “options” at the top of the screen. Check “Make this site archive public.” Copy the url under the checkbox and save it for later.
  5. Go to ProPublica’s ChangeFeeder page to create an RSS feed for each site you’re monitoring. Paste into the box the url you copied in step 4 and append it with “all”. It should look something like “http://versionista.com/pub/19600/1/all”.
  6. To give the feed a cleaner URL and to receive stats for it, run it through FeedBurner.
  7. If you wish, use FriendFeed to publish your feed on a Twitter stream.

A Maryland native, I decided to use ChangeTracker to monitor changes to recent blog and news items on the campaign websites for Maryland’s governor and his challenger, who are reversing roles from four years ago.

Finished Product

Neither of these was working perfectly last I checked. You can get an idea for what’s supposed to happen by clicking “this change” for the “June 7, 2010 7:28 PM” change on the O’Malley feed. It’s a lame change — new tweets! — but you get the idea.

versionista screengrab

Pros

  • Once you find out the tutorial you’ve been trying to follow is no longer operable, this isn’t that much work to pull off.
  • You can catch website changes you’d never notice unaided, all without visiting pages umpteen times a day.
  • Versionista helps transparency advocates practice what they preach by providing a way to share interactive archives of their own websites.

Cons

  • Like I said, I still haven’t gotten this working perfectly. This could be a problem on my end, but I’ve already invested more time than I intended in this exercise.
  • To take full advantage of ChangeTracker and monitor more than five Web pages requires a paid Versionista account.
  • Even with a tool automating the first step, culling through dozens of mundane updates to find one interesting one is still tedious!

Tip

  • Think about the sites you choose to track. ChangeTracker works well for static pages with lots of text, less well for dynamic pages with a lot of multimedia.

Recommend?

  • For those with more patience and time than me, definitely. ProPublica has used ChangeTracker in its reporting several times. ChangeTracker is a useful enough tool for novices but there’s no telling how expert developers could extend what Versionista and ProPublica have put together.
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