What began as a discussion two years ago during a power blackout has taken Chris Saad and the team at start-up technology developer Faraday Media into the forefront of one of the most talked-about developments in online social media.
Saad and his colleagues are the driving force behind Attention Profiling Mark-up Language (APML), which is an attempt to create a standardised and open format for consumers to store information about their interests and preferences.
APML is the result of several initiatives at Faraday Media relating to personal information management. One of the company's subsidiaries, Particls, is an application that helps consumers keep track of the people and topics they are interested in, in real time, via an application that is docked with their browser.
"By necessity we were collecting a lot of user data, so that we could learn what users were interested in and give them the right kind of information," Saad says. "And we thought that we were immediately bound to give that information back to the user and give them control over it and visibility into it."
That led to the creation of APML. The technology has rapidly been gaining traction as a standard for information sharing, but was thrust into the spotlight recently thanks to an altercation between social media sites Facebook and Plaxo, when prominent blogger Robert Scoble attempted to download and transport his Facebook contacts and their contextual information.
Scoble's account was subsequently closed by Facebook (and then later reopened), but the incident furthered raised awareness of the question of who owns personal data in a social networking application, and how it can be used by the people contributing it.
Saad says the goal is for APML to grow as a standard, and it is already a core component of DataPortabilty.org, a group that is dedicated to allowing users to share and discover personal data easily between different sites and applications. APML is intended to provide a standard way of effectively describing what might otherwise be called a tag cloud, including information on how interested (or disinterested) the user is in specific content.
"Once you have created a standard way for people to express their interests and disinterests, you have a very rich language for creating a personal Internet experience," Saad said. "That experience you have on Amazon, where they are customising the books you see, through APML you can actually cross pollinate all the other experiences you are having.
"So you could start getting feed recommendations in Google Reader, and start getting relevant alerts from Particls, or people-discovery on Facebook from people who had similar interests to you.
"The only way to do that is to create a format that creates trust with the user, and gives them a common language to pass between all the players in the ecosystem, otherwise all the players are playing in their own sandbox. We need to encourage an ecosystem to solve the attention management problem, otherwise we 're not going to solve it."
Saad says none of this would be possible without a single, open file format. Given the lack of such a format in the marketplace, he says it was up to Faraday to develop it.
After 12 months Faraday's development efforts were opened up, and with the assistance of numerous third parties, eventually became APML. Now Saad says APML is receiving significant support from software developers as a standard for the portability of personal data.
One of the most recent organisations to adopt APML is the blogging site Bloglines, although Saad says APML has received support from LastFM, del.ico.us and Digg. He says there are also significant Australian media companies that have expressed deep interest in APML using Faraday's technology.
Saad says that anyone is free to go to APML.org to learn about the technology and implement it themselves using the open source code available there. They can also choose to use Faraday's tool, Engagd, or integrate the technology themselves.
APML is also at the core of the DataPortability workgroup, which now boasts members including Flickr, Twitter, and recently Facebook, Plaxo and Google. By joining the group Saad says these companies have also given de facto support to APML.
One Australian developer to have embraced APML is the online content recommendation service Scouta. According to founder Richard Giles, APML provides a mechanism for the attention data that is in Scouta to be open and shared with other applications.
"It provides a mechanism for us to say to consumers not to worry about being locked in — they can take their data and go somewhere else," Giles said. "And it will hopefully leverage any of the other sites that have APML as well. The whole buzz around 'Facebook-blocking' and walled gardens is starting to show that people really respect companies that aren't like that."
Giles expects that the integration of APML should be relatively easy, simply requiring a wrapper around Scouta's data, to ensure that it comes out of the database in the correct XML format.
"It's pretty straightforward. Once you've got your head around the XML format then any script writer can write something to get it out of the database."