djc: thinking in writing

Are We Meeting Yet?

For a few months now, I've worked on a little single-file web thingy: Are We Meeting Yet? (AWMY for short). Here are two example URLs:

Gervase Markham kindly wrote about it on his blog after I recommended it for a Firefox development meeting, which made me think I should write about it here.

What it is

AWMY is a tool to communicate event (meeting) times to geographically dispersed and therefore timezone-challenged audiences. This means it displays date/time values in (a) an original timezone, (b) the UTC timezone and (c) the user's local timezone, with a title or description and a countdown timer.

Critically, it supports recurring meetings in a way that a single URL will show the next meeting in the series no matter when it's loaded into the browser. This makes it a good fit for use in automatically generated meeting announcements. Currently, the only supported repeating modes are weekly and bi-weekly.

One of the design goals is to have nice-looking URLs; ideally, you can understand the meeting date/time from the URL even without clicking the link. For now, hacking the URL is the only way to create a new event page; this should be easy in most cases. I hope to add a form to make it even easier sometime soon.

Timezone support is based on the venerable Olson timezone database. I've put some thought into handling events near daylight savings transitions and tried to put in some warnings, but it's probably not perfect yet. At least weekend events close to daylight savings transitions should be somewhat rare.

The domain name was chosen because it fits in with a Mozilla meme (e.g. fast, pretty, small, popular, flash and probably others); I couldn't come up with a better alternative that was also still available. This one will hopefully be memorable at least for some part of the intended audience.

How to use it

In the current iteration, the page accepts a maximum of 5 arguments:

  • A timezone: a subset of Olson timezones are accepted and can be referenced in a few different forms. Only the continent timezones are accepted (e.g. "America/Los_Angeles", "Europe/Amsterdam"), plus the "UTC" timezone. The continent is optional (and left out in the canonical versions). A space can be used where underscores are used in timezone names.
  • A date: an ISO 6801-formatted date, like "2013-08-26". A three-letter weekday abbreviation also works here (like "Mon"), but it will emit a warning if used without the weekly repeating mode.
  • A time: ISO 6801-formatted 24-hour time, like "15:30".
  • A repeating mode: currently "w" for weekly or "b" for bi-weekly.
  • A title: any text.

If no timezone is provided, it's assumed to be UTC. Some examples:

Why

I got started based on some discussion on the mozilla-governance mailing list. Most Mozilla meetings are coordinated based on the timezone for the Mozilla HQ, in California. For many non-US participants, it's easier if meeting times are communicated in UTC, because they know their own UTC offset. However, this would change actual local meeting times based on daylight savings, which is a bit of a pain for recurring meetings. Therefore, it makes more sense to keep the reference meeting time in a timezone that has daylight savings, on the premise that most people live in zones that use mostly similar daylight savings schedules.

Some tools exist: for example, here's a timeanddate.com link use for a Firefox developer meeting. Although timeanddate.com has most of the information available from AWMY, it's provided in a much more cluttered fashion. Personally, I find it quite hard to visually parse that page to find the data I need. Of course, it does provide other useful features that AWMY does not currently offer.

I've also seen everytimezone.com used for this kind of thing; here's an example. It does provide the user with a sense of context, which is probably useful when you want to see what meeting times make sense in timezones you care about. For the purpose of communicating a single meeting time, it feels rather unfocused.

The user experience for these tools doesn't work well for this use case, so I thought I might be able to do better. On top of that, the other tools don't appear to handle recurring meetings. Having a stable URL for a series of events is useful when you want to point to a meeting time from many different places, but having to update each pointer every week is kind of a drag. Thus was born AWMY.

Future plans

At the top of my to do list is a feature to combine event series. This is mostly inspired by CouchDB meetings, which take place at alternating 13:00 UTC and 19:00 UTC times to accomodate people in different timezones. My current implementation strategy is to have a "merge" flag that signals another meeting series, such that two bi-weekly events series can be joined together.

As mentioned before, friendlier UI to build new events is one of my other priorities. A few form elements could go a long way, though I probably want a slightly more polished experience. I'll also have to figure out how to make dealing with series easy, in particular when working with the merging feature.

It would make sense to add a few other repeating modes, in particular "3rd Wednesday of each month"-like functionality. Offering ICS downloads would be nice. I would like each page to show the next meeting instance, if only as an indication that you're dealing with a recurrent event.

Because there's no server side component, I really want to keep all state in the URLs. On the other hand, I also want readable URLs. These goals don't always align well, so balancing them is an interesting act. I'm thinking about a way to generate alternative URLs that aren't as readable, but significantly shorter.

Wrapping up

I hope this will be a useful tool for the open source community (and anybody else who has a use for it). I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on what features would be most useful to add. If you want to contribute some code, that would be even better; check it out via the Bitbucket project. All feedback is welcome!