6.7 Mashups, APIs, Tagging and More

Stop reading for a second if you’re holding the printed edition of this book. Fire up your Web browser and look at the “Tunisian Prison Map” online at http://www.nawaat.org/tunisianprisonersmap. Click on any of the pointers in the map, and it will take you deeper into a repository of information about Tunisia’s human rights abuses. The map’s lead creator, Sami Ben Gharbia, pulled data from a variety of sources and used Google Maps to help illustrate what he found. It’s brilliant work, and in a good cause.

The Tunisian map is an example of a mashup—a combination of data and Web services that could not have existed before the Web 2.0 era. It relies on a technology called the Application Programming Interface (API). APIs are used to make connections between different websites and services, by allowing one to interoperate with others. The electrical socket in a wall is, in effect, an API to devices that use electricity.

You don’t have to have a lot of experience with technology to create your own mashup. Google Maps and its competitors let you put virtual pins on maps and then annotate them with your own information. Some news organizations have done something similar; for example, the Bakersfield Californian newspaper put up a map and asked readers to pinpoint the locations of potholes in the city streets. You could do the same in your own neighborhood (let your city government officials know, because they’re the ones who can get the holes filled!). Even easier for this purpose than Google Maps for beginners is CitySourced.com, which is specifically aimed at improving local services.

Mashups are fundamentally about data, but some of the best ones are also about visualizing that data. Numbers, dates and the like don’t tell you much by themselves, but when you combine them with visual techniques they start to sing a tune we can all understand. One of my favorites in this genre is a video timeline of Wal-Mart deployments across the continental U.S., with dots on the map starting in a small city in Arkansas and ultimately spreading across the nation in a view that is unpleasantly reminiscent of an epidemic.

The Web is loaded with excellent resources for creating mashups. We have a list on the Mediactive site, but I recommend starting at a site called, logically, Programmable Web, which offers a great “how to” on creating your own mashup. It starts with “Pick a subject” and goes into detail from there.

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