Wise Up to Mashups

by Simon. Average Reading Time: about 5 minutes.

A new breed of Web-based data integration applications is emerging across the Internet. Colloquially known as “mashups”, their popularity stems from the emphasis on interactive user participation and the manner in which they aggregate third-party data.

A mashup is a website or web application that seamlessly combines content from more than one source into an integrated experience.

Mashups are an exciting genre of interactive Web applications that are characterised by, and draw upon, content and functionality retrieved from external data sources to create entirely new and innovative services. They are a hallmark of the second generation of Web applications widely known as Web 2.0.

This vague data-integration definition of a mashup certainly isn’t a rigorous one. A good insight as to what makes a mashup is to look at the etymology of the term:

Mashup, or bastard pop, is a musical genre which, in its purest form, consists of the combination (usually by digital means) of the music from one song with the a cappella from another. Typically, the music and vocals belong to completely different genres. At their best, bastard pop songs strive for musical epiphanies that add up to considerably more than the sum of their parts.

Like these songs, a mashup is an unusual or innovative composition of content (often from unrelated data sources), made for human (rather than computerized) consumption.

Mapping mashups

In this age of information technology, people are collecting a immense amount of data about things, activities, events, all of which can be annotated with locations. These diverse data sets that contain location data, are wanting to be presented graphically using maps. One of the big catalysts for the advent of mashups was Google’s introduction of its Google Maps API. This opened the floodgates, allowing Web developers to mash all sorts of data (everything from nuclear disasters to Weather Bonk and Keotag) onto maps. Not to be left out, APIs from Microsoft (Virtual Earth), Yahoo (Yahoo Maps), and AOL (MapQuest) shortly followed.

Video and photo mashups

The emergence of photo hosting and social networking sites like Flickr with APIs that expose photo sharing has led to a variety of interesting mashups. Because these content providers have metadata associated with the images they host (such as who took the picture, what it is a picture of, where and when it was taken, user-defined tags for describing the image and more), mashup designers can mash photos with other information that can be associated with the metadata. For example, a mashup might analyse song or poetry lyrics and create a mosaic or collage of relevant photos, or display social networking graphs based upon common photo metadata (subject, timestamp, and other metadata.). Yet another example might take as input a Web site (such as a news site like CNN) and render the text in photos by matching tagged photos to words from the news. EducationSearch is an education search tool which enables you to search by: Location, Career, Industry/Salary and provides personalized searches to save for future reference. EducationSearch Utilises Flickr, Google Maps and YouTube.

Search and Shopping mashups

Search and shopping mashups have existed long before the term mashup was coined. Before the days of Web APIs, comparative shopping tools such as BizRate, PriceGrabber, MySimon, CrowdStorm, Shopping.com and Google’s Froogle used combinations of business-to-business (B2B) technologies or screen-scraping to aggregate comparative price data. To facilitate mashups and other interesting Web applications, consumer marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon have released APIs for programmatically accessing their content.

News mashups

News sources (such as the New York Times, the BBC, or Reuters) have used syndication technologies like RSS and Atom since 2002 to disseminate news feeds related to various topics. Syndication feed mashups can aggregate a user’s feeds and present them over the Web, creating a personalized newspaper that caters to the reader’s particular interests. An example includes Diggdot.us, which combines feeds from the techie-oriented news sources Digg.com, Slashdot.org, and Del.icio.us. This is in contrast to Google News which aggregates news content through complex search algorithms.

Mashups represent huge benefits and challenges to software companies. No longer is the web simply a collection of web pages that a user ‘surfs’ through on a day to day basis. The web is becoming an omnipotent tool, a global application along the mold of Microsoft’s Windows OS. People are learning to develop Web 2.0 with much the same energy as seen in the early innovations of the personal computer market. The more people seize control of this new paradigm, the more the long-delayed promise of software and services that can be tapped on demand is realised.

At the same time these bottom-up efforts represent a tough challenge to the service providers upon which the mashup is based. Mashups often use data with out licence, and present this data in unintended ways. For example, Yahoo initially blocked the use of its API by one mashup website that was using it’s content in conjunction with the Google Maps API. Amazon blocked the use of it’s API by Amazon Light until it changed how it linked to rival sites and the GreaseMonkey extension for the Firefox Browser, which allows the quick installation of scripts to manipulate web pages, represents a security threat if exposed to malicious scripts.

Inexpensive Research & Development

Amazon and other giants in the web business are embracing the mashup phenomenon by allowing easier access to their data services. Indeed, these companies are programming their interfaces so that much of the computations are made on the client’s computer rather than a server located on potentially another continent. This allows developer’s to make their own tweaks.

The appeal to web sites is clear. Mashups represent a way to develop creativity, software, tools and communicate messages to the community.

However, mashup business models don’t extend beyond running a few Google ads and collecting fees for sending buyers to e-commerce sites. One reason is that most Web sites don’t allow for-profit use of their data by outsiders. But as traffic to mash-ups grows, companies may cut deals, especially if mash-up sites spur new markets. Map-based mash-ups, for instance, may finally attract local businesses to advertise on the Web.



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