My association with Factr goes back to its infancy, when I was drafted to test the functionality and user-friendliness of the software as it evolved from a newsreader-with-potential into the feature-rich social media platform it is rapidly becoming. Being “of a certain age,” I also served as a canary in the digital mine shaft – alerting the engineers to features too complex for people with only “conversational” tech skills, and suggesting new ones.
In my work life, I’ve made a career as a New York-based human-rights activist, policy analyst, and development journalist specializing in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is a big, diverse place, and, as a practical matter, my profession requires me to follow events on a large number of topics and countries – from music and art to counterinsurgency, economic development, and Africa’s international relations. In the pre-digital age, reliable, timely news and in-depth information about Africa was scarce and difficult to get, requiring hours reading many newspapers daily, regular visits to the library to peruse African periodicals (which often arrived weeks or months late), or slogging through the UN’s byzantine document-cataloging system to find hard copies of relevant reports.
The advent of the web solved the access problem for me but created another: how to monitor and filter the mountain of information now available in real time to find what I needed? I was overwhelmed by the task of managing the data glut and frustrated that commercially available newsreaders and services like Google Alerts were only adding to the clutter – generating a lot of extraneous and off-topic material no matter how much I tinkered with the search terms. I spent hours surfing the web looking for relevant news and information.
Factr changes all that – and, with it, the way I do my research. With powerful search, filtering, and aggregation tools built around the core idea of an information “stream,” I've been able to automate much of my monitoring of the many places and issues I follow. Creating a stream is a straightforward process: decide on the topic you want to follow, identify your sources, load each of their RSS feeds into the search engine, select your search terms, and voilà! You’re done! Data from your information sources, filtered by your search terms, begins arriving into your stream in chronological order, with duplicates flagged. Factr enables you to then search the stream by keyword or date, aggregate it, tag it, comment on it, and share it as you need to.
I tend to check my streams at least once a week, and on occasion several times a day.
One of the streams I use most, African Energy and Mining Monitor, provides a good illustration of how Factr makes it easy to find the information I need when I need it. I wanted a stream to track, in real time, industrial, marketing and financing, and sociopolitical developments in the critical sub-Saharan mining and energy sectors. That posed a problem, since it is often the case that the industry press largely ignores social and political aspects, while social justice sources rarely cover business and finance. Factr allowed me to simply combine those different sources into a single information stream, and then search that data by subject, location, and time.
I spent a couple of hours locating and loading about thirty sources and setting the filtering terms. Then Factr immediately started populating the stream. Over time, I’ve almost doubled my source list and tweaked my search terms a couple of times to improve the quality of the stream. I have been very happy with the results.
Using Factr, you’ll invest time on the front end – identifying and loading your RSS sources and setting your search terms. But, at this point, I can set up a basic stream in a matter of minutes when I’m working with only a few sources and using simple search terms. Other streams, with lots of sources and filters, take longer to set up. Yet, even the streams I've set up on the fly consistently deliver more relevant data than anything else I’ve tried. In any case, the sources and filters are easy to tweak – by adding new ones or removing unproductive ones to improve the depth and quality of my data.
Factr also allows you to use the same source list to build other streams with different search terms, combine your stream with the streams of colleagues, or add editors and admins for collaborative projects. With its social media features now coming online, the platform will soon allow journalists and researchers, advocacy groups and project teams, regional specialists, and governmental and non-governmental organizations to build a collaborative and interactive information environment whose content that can be debated, analyzed, and evaluated by their peers in real time. What’s not to like?
So, who should use Factr? The short answer, in my humble opinion, is everybody, because my experience with Factr has been so positive. It is particularly useful for people trying to manage large information flows from multiple sources, and to be able to share them with friends and colleagues.
Or, you can collect cute kitten videos and rainbow unicorn sightings. Whatever floats your boat. Part of Factr’s value for me is its great versatility.
One of Factr’s other winning features is its strong privacy safeguards and its rejection of ads and surveillance capitalism. When I use Factr, instead of, say, Chrome to do research, I'm not bombarded by ads. I'm not worried about being tracked. I'm not concerned that somebody out there is trying to winnow out my personal details, identify my friends and colleagues, and sell my online life to the highest bidder.
For my money, Mark Zuckerberg should be given a fair trial, then drawn and quartered with extreme prejudice. Until that happy day arrives, Factr’s user-controlled platform, its innovative and powerful data collection and management tools, and its efficiency and flexibility makes it a great addition to my professional toolkit.