VGS, NCGS, and the USPS API

Alpha­bet Soup for a Monday

I am the web­mas­ter for three genealog­i­cal soci­eties, the North Car­olina Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety, the Vir­ginia Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety, and the North Car­olina Chap­ter of the APG. I also chair the Tech­nol­ogy Com­mit­tee of the NGS.

In each of these realms, I find myself empow­ered by open source tech­nol­ogy, using the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) tech­nol­ogy stack. This is a pow­er­ful suite of free tools that have been devel­oped by vol­un­teers, or in other ways made avail­able for free use. Much of the tech­nol­ogy involved in these sites is — as is com­monly said, “Free as in ‘Free beer’ and free as in ‘Free speech.’”

A key tech­nol­ogy that I’m using is Joomla. This is an open source web con­tent man­age­ment sys­tem designed to pro­vide a dynamic web­site, chang­ing as con­tent and meta­data is changed in the data­base. It relies on hav­ing LAMP under­neath it, and builds web pages from the files on the Apache Server and the data in the MySQL data­base. While you can have page ele­ments cached if they are fre­quently used, in gen­eral the pages are deliv­ered by query­ing the data­base when some­one comes to a page, then tak­ing the data and some HTML and styling tem­plates, and assem­bling an HTML page “on the fly.”

I am not the only per­son who uses Joomla for geneal­ogy soci­ety web­sites. Among oth­ers, there is the Dal­las Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety, the New Eng­land Chap­ter of the APG, and the Nebraska State Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety.

The most recent of the sites that I have put together is for the Vir­ginia Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety. I launched the VGS beta web­site this morn­ing. There is still a lot more to do with that site, but the look and feel and the core func­tions are available.

In mid Decem­ber, I had updated the method of ship­ping cal­cu­la­tion on both the NCGS site and the VGS site to use the US Postal Ser­vice Appli­ca­tion Programmer’s Inter­face (API). This allows both sites to pro­vide pric­ing based on what the USPS would actu­ally charge to ship, say a book, from one par­tic­u­lar loca­tion to another. The API takes into con­sid­er­a­tion the weight of the item, whether it is a let­ter or a pack­age, the source and des­ti­na­tion zip codes, etc., then returns a price that the Joomla site can add han­dling expenses to, and dis­play to the buyer.

The share­ware mod­ule to inte­gra­tion the USPS API with Joomla (from Park­beach Sys­tems) was prob­a­bly the eas­i­est of mod­ules to set up, though it did require a brief call to the USPS to request the accounts be put on the pro­duc­tion server.

This after­noon, a geneal­o­gist who was try­ing to pur­chase one of the books from the North Car­olina Genealog­i­cal Society’s web­site noted that they were unable to make a pur­chase. I went over to the site and saw the same symp­toms. I hadn’t changed any­thing since our last order for a ship­ping item (on Decem­ber 31), but I duti­fully spent hours search­ing the con­fig­u­ra­tions for some anom­aly, some tog­gle I had for­got­ten to switch.

Even­tu­ally, I needed some din­ner and came home to have it. After that break, I came back and started Googling again for USPS API and told Google to sort results based on how recent they were. Up popped a tweet about what was hap­pen­ing, from @floodlight:

USPS decided to update their ship­ping rate API with­out telling any­one. #FAIL http://url.fldweb.com/fyLQ8z

Geneal­ogy sites, gar­den­ing sites, mommy-and-me sites, all kinds of web­sites rely on this API, and the USPS decided it was high time that they made sure peo­ple knew that phrases such as “Pri­or­ity Mail” were reg­is­tered trade­marks, so they put the code:

<sup>®</sup>

after every one of their reg­is­tered trade­marks. Since none of the devel­op­ers of inte­gra­tions with the API had accounted for this, or even knew it was about to hap­pen, and since the USPS API sent the reg­is­tered trade­mark sym­bol as a Uni­code char­ac­ter instead of as HTML com­mands for the char­ac­ter (&reg; or &#x00AE; or &#174;) everyone’s USPS inte­gra­tions filled up with junk and failed, some­times in cre­ative ways. Our site sim­ply stopped offer­ing a ship­ping option, though it demanded that users choose one …

By the way, the USPS web­site still does not men­tion this issue, though a quick search of the Twit­ter stream will show you it’s still on people’s minds: http://twitter.com/#!/search/USPS%20API

So, this is how I spent my evening, fret­ting over a prob­lem that didn’t need to be there in the first place. Folks: Doc­u­ment your APIs, com­mu­ni­cate your pro­posed changes in advance, please.

The good news in all this is that once I real­ized that the API was to blame, and not some mis­con­fig­u­ra­tion of my own doing, I went to the com­pany that pro­vides the API I’m using with Joomla, and they had already posted an updated ver­sion. Both sites are work­ing fine in terms of ship­ping and the USPS ship­ping API.

So now, I can rest. Tomor­row I’m start­ing an Aikido class with my step­son, but per­haps I will get more of an oppor­tu­nity to work on geneal­ogy in the evening tomor­row, even with that going on, than I did today. We shall see.

Genealogy Resolution Roundup: 2011

I am not the only geneal­o­gist who has writ­ten a blog entry about goals for the new year.

I thought it might be inter­est­ing to take a quick, and frankly, nearly ran­dom sur­vey of what other blog­gers and jour­nal­ists have said about their genealog­i­cal plans in the new year, or what your res­o­lu­tions should be …

LEARN ABOUT YOUR PAST. Highly trained staff in the Main Library’s Geneal­ogy & Local His­tory Depart­ment is ready and equipped to help the begin­ner and the advanced researcher find a family’s roots. The depart­ment is one of the largest repos­i­to­ries of genealog­i­cal mate­r­ial in the nation. More infor­ma­tion is avail­able at http://www.cincinnatilibrary.org/main/genlocal.html.

  • Megan Toth of the Syos­set Patch in Syos­set, New York lists “Learn Some­thing New” as num­ber 4 on her “New Year, New Res­o­lu­tions” list, and the top item under learn some­thing new is “Learn more about your family’s roots at Geneal­ogy classes offered at the Syos­set Pub­lic Library on Wednes­day, Jan. 5 at 7 pm.”
  • Julie Cahill Tarr writes an orga­nized and thought­ful piece on what she got accom­plished in 2010, and what she would like to do in terms of geneal­ogy in 2011. It was espe­cially good to see her talk­ing about help­ing “some­one else with their geneal­ogy.” She also plans to fin­ish her ProGen study group and … wait for it … “Stop slack­ing on this blog.”
  • Randy Seaver writes a volu­mi­nous list of goals for 2011, while acknowl­edg­ing he didn’t get every­thing done that he would have liked to in 2010. The list is orga­nized into groups: Research, Data Orga­ni­za­tion, Geneal­ogy Data­base, Edu­ca­tion, Soci­ety Activ­i­ties, Speak­ing and Teach­ing, Writ­ing, and … finally Real Life, where he (or is it his wife on his behalf?) agrees to try to limit his geneal­ogy work to 10 hours a day.

What are your goals for the new year?

Completed Transcription: History of Swan Johnson Family

I have posted a com­plete tran­scrip­tion of Lena John­son Schlitemeier’s “His­tory of Swan John­son Fam­ily of Nance County, Nebraska (Jan­u­ary 1936).”

The book exists only in the form of a typed MSS in the hands of the fam­ily. There are at least two ver­sions; the tran­scrip­tion is of the most com­plete ver­sion, which was given to me and my mother by the author’s son in 1997 as we vis­ited his farm is Nehawka, Nebraska.

Swan John­son (born Sven Jöns­son in Valby, Kris­tianstad, Swe­den in 1826) mar­ried Kjer­stin Wescelius in 1853. They had six chil­dren in Swe­den, and then, in 1868, with the youngest child less than 6 months of age, they emi­grated to the United States. They lived first in Chicago, Illi­nois, later on a farm in Bement, Piatt County, Illi­nois, and finally cross­ing the prairie to farm in Keatsko­toos and Genoa, Nance County, Nebraska. This book tells a quite detailed story of three gen­er­a­tions of this fam­ily. The author was the eldest child of the eldest child of Swan and Kjer­stin John­son. Lena John­son attended Nebraska Wes­leyan and the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago, receiv­ing a Ph.B. in Edu­ca­tion from the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago and an A.B. from Nebraska Wes­leyan. She writes well and clearly, and though the doc­u­ment is not sourced, most of what I have been able to val­i­date has been sur­pris­ingly accurate.