NAME

AnnoCPAN - Annotated CPAN documentation

SYNOPSIS

    AnnoCPAN is a web interface for the documentation of all the
    modules on CPAN, where users can add annotations on the margin of
    specific paragraphs throughout the POD.

    This is a work in progress. Some of the ideas given here may well
    change over time.

DESCRIPTION

Background

Let's start by listing some of the resources at the disposal of the Perl community.

  • CPAN is a wonderful archive and distribution system for Perl modules.

  • search.cpan.org is a very nice web interface for searching and browsing the CPAN modules and their documentation.

  • rt.cpan.org is a bug tracking system for CPAN modules, but it is not used by all module authors.

  • cpanratings.perl.org allows users to give public feedback and opinions about the modules.

  • Sites such as perlmonks.org and the newsgroups allow people to learn and discuss various issues with Perl and Perl modules.

  • Some modules have websites, mailing lists, or some sort of discussion forum where people can discuss issues about the specific module.

  • CPAN::Forum (which didn't exist when I started working on AnnoCPAN) is a discussion forum where the threads are classified by CPAN module.

Where does AnnoCPAN fit in?

When I started working on this project, there were many modules on CPAN that don't have mailing lists or other discussion places. Scattered discussions could happen in various places, or some users could post general comments on cpanratings.perl.org. However, there was no central place where users could help each other by commenting on specific features, uses, gotchas, etc. for all Perl modules. A limitation of sites such as CPANRatings (and to a certain degree other sites that host reviews) is that the comments appear out of the context of the module's documentation, so they are necessarily general unless the comment's author decides to write a long review to establish context. AnnoCPAN intends to fill this gap by allowing users to add public annotations on the margin of the documentation of every module on CPAN.

The idea is not new, of course; MySQL and PHP already have something similar. One difference is that notes in AnnoCPAN belong to specific paragraphs instead of chapters, and they are shown on the margin (or between paragraphs, depending on the style sheet) instead of at the bottom of the page.

How does it work?

The AnnoCPAN site has the documentation for all the CPAN modules, and a database of "notes" that can be added through the web interface. When a user views a module's documentation, the POD is shown as HTML together with the notes. This allows users to write very short notes that fill gaps in the documentation; for example, it might be sufficient to say "warning: this method returns different things in scalar and in list context and the POD doesn't mention it!".

The plan is to make the note database available for download under an open license so that other CPAN sites can choose to show the notes. It might also be possible to create a program to patch the local pods in a user's machine so that the notes appear on perldoc! (Clearly labeled as notes, of course).

The problem with versions

A note is identified by the distribution, module, and paragraph number. But what happens when a new version of the module comes out? The notes will also have to take the version number of the distribution into account. But, is it viable to show old notes with the POD of the new version? And where? Paragraph numbers can change.

In most cases, the documentation for the new version of a module is very similar to the last one. If it is a bugfix release, there might not be any changes at all; otherwise functions are typically added but not removed. In cases such as this, it would be a good idea to transfer the old notes to the new version. The paragraph to which the note was originally attached can be compared to the paragraphs in the new version and, if one is similar enough (preferably identical), the note is transferred.

If the system can't figure out where to put the old note, the author or a moderator can move it to a place in the new version if the note still applies. Hopefully some of the good notes will become obsolete once the author of the module decides to update the documentation to address the issues mentioned in the note.

Users are able to edit, move, and delete their own notes. Moderators are be able to move or delete any note.

CURRENT STATUS

This test version already has essentially all the documentation found on CPAN, except for occasional difficulties with the non-trivial problem of unpacking and identifying the relevant content in distributions which were packed in many different ways.

The current features include:

  • Search by module name, distribution, and author.

  • Show the POD as HTML, together with the notes

  • Allow anyone to add notes

  • List the most recent notes on the front page.

  • Authentication

  • Delete, move or edit notes (only the note's author can do this)

  • Handle versions; automatic updates

  • Generate RSS feeds or emails

AUTHOR

Ivan Tubert-Brohman <itub@cpan.org>

Comments and suggestions welcome.