Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What are Web Hooks?

(And how are they relevant to our project?)

'Web Hooks' are an idea that describes an entire range of small programs/applications that go out and trigger other programs to do something (and that 'something' is defined by the user).

Paypal is an example of this process, specifically their "instant payment notification." When something happens (ie. a customer pays you), Paypal sends a notification to a URL that you have specified (that in turn can connect to your server in charge of inventory and shipping stuff). The Web Hook provides the connection between the event (getting paid) and the output (shipping stuff).

Web Hooks are different than RSS feeds. In theory, RSS feeds work because you say "I'm interested in this" when you subscribe to the feed, and when new stuff is posted, the RSS feed 'feeds' it to you. In reality, RSS feeds work because your computer constantly checks, and checks, and checks. This constant checking is often called 'polling'. This is not "information push", not yet.

But now that feeds are being 'consumed' by applications & servers, not just human users, we need something that works better-- something that doesn't require that constant checking for new and interesting info goodies. Essentially Web Hooks allow different web-based programs to talk to each other and work together.

So how would we use Web Hooks for our project? Ideally, it would work like this-- we would have it set up so that when someone has entered or updated a 'public' entry in the Collaborative Catalog, the Web Hook would grab that update, and push it over to the catalog of the museum where from which that record came. (right Robin?) Sounds easy when you say it fast!

A couple of challenges:

-- Three out of the four content partners use the ARGUS system. We don't yet know for sure that we can set up a Web Hook with ARGUS, since ARGUS doesn't really connect with the Internet very well. Robin hopes that we can make this work using the Web Module of ARGUS. Here's hoping!

-- How will this work with our protocols of sharing? We have to strike a balance between getting people to contribute to the catalogue (ensuring that they feel comfortable doing so), and keeping the necessary protections on certain areas of knowledge. The fact that the process is automated via Web Hooks makes it much, much easier to get Zuni voices in the catalogs of the outside museums, but we have to be careful that we structure it so that non-public knowledge stays put at Zuni. It's a familiar challenge-- making sure the technological structure reflects the cultural needs.

More information on Web Hooks (and some jargon) can be found in this slide presentation by Jeff Lindsay, "Web Hooks and the Programmable World of Tomorrow"; and in the Web Hooks blog.

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