What is a Mashup?
I hear the term mashup being used to describe certain websites, but I'm not sure what it means. Can you explain what a mashup is, and where the word comes from?
Mashup is a term that's become popular to describe Web 2.0-ish sites that combine the features or functions of one website with another. But the term mashup has its roots in music, where creative (or bored) people combine the vocal and instrumental tracks from two or more songs to create a new song. Sometimes the point is simply humor, created by the contrast of different musical genres. This Wikipedia entry gives more of the history, and many examples of musical mashups.
But the focus of this article is on website mashups, created by clever programmers who use a variety of techniques to create useful new services that are derived from existing ones. These sites typically festure a high level of interactivity, user input, social networking, and sometimes even encourage people to use them as the basis for derivative works.
The most common mashups involve maps, but there are also video mashups, photo mashups, search and shopping mashups, and news mashups. Website developers can use data feeds and application programming interfaces (APIs) provided by established sites such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon, Ebay and others, which are created specifically to encourage mashups. In other cases, mashup creators will use unauthorized tools such as screen scraping to "borrow" content for their sites.
Below you'll find some examples of mashups in various categories, and a bit of discussion about the legal and ethical challenges involved in creating mashups.
When the very popular Google Maps released an API that allowed web developers to easily integrate mapping into their own sites, it spurred a lot of creative minds into action. APIs for Yahoo Maps, MapQuest and Microsoft's Virtual Earth shortly followed, making it almost trivial to plug a rich source of geographical, topological, street-level and satellite image data into existing websites. Here are some examples of interesting map mashups:
- Ask 500 People is an innovative survey tool designed to gather opinion data in minutes instead of days. Business and individuals can pose a question, and a diverse, decentralized pool of people from around the world will be polled to provide their answer or opinion. The voting results are dynamically displayed on a world map that's powered by Google Maps.
- Weather Bonk combines Google Maps with data from the National Weather Service, Weather Underground, and a collection of personal weather stations in homes and schools. You can also view live webcam images from the area you choose.
- I am Caltrain uses Yahoo Maps, Caltrain schedules and Flickr Photos to help you plan your rail travel in California. Find out which train stops have amenities like bike lockers and parking as well as when the next train will arrive.
Video and Photo Mashups
There are an abundance of video and photo hosting sites with APIs, such as Flickr, Yahoo Photos and Youtube. Combine those with keyword tagging data that not only specifies the subject matter of the media, but also the geographic location of the imagery, and you can come up with some pretty cool mashups. Here are some video and photo mashup site to check out:
- Magnify.net allows anyone to add a video player to their site, or create your own video website. You specify a set of keywords, and Magnify will find relevant videos from YouTube, Google Video, Yahoo, Revver, Blip and other sources. You can also add community features to your site, such as peer review, comments and discussion forums.
- Flickr Sudoku lets you play Sudoku online, using images of numbers from Flickr.
- Flickr Maps is a mashup of Yahoo Maps and Flickr that turns you into a virtual tourist. Select a city in the USA, and then view relevant photos from Flickr.
Search and Shopping Mashups
Price comparison tools for online shopping have been around for quite a few years. Many individual stores offer data feeds so they can be easily included in multi-site product searches at sites such as BizRate, MySimon, and PriceGrabber.
Other sites poll a combination of stores, individual sellers and large databases from ecommerce aggregators such as Amazon and Ebay. A good example of this is BestWebBuys which helps you find the best price on books, music and electronics by searching thousands of sources at once, and presenting you with a list of sellers, sortable in different ways.
BidRobot is a tool to help you win more auctions on Ebay and pay less for the items you buy. BidRobot automatically submits your bids to eBay in the final moments of the auction, so you can hide your interest in an item and prevent other bidders from raising the bid price.
RSS feeds are used by many blogs and news organizations as a means of distributing (or syndicating) news headlines and story summaries. So that makes it possible for mashup developers to create personalized newspapers that meet your interests. Other mashups combine keyword from news stories with maps and photo sharing sites. Here are some notable news mashups:
- AP News + Google Maps displays news stories from the Associated Press (National, Sports, Business, Technology and Strange) superimposed on Google Maps. The geographic location for each news story is determined using Yahoo's Geocoding API, and is then plotted on the map.
- Flickr Fling lets you select a news source, such as CNN or Wired News, and view the latest news rendered in pictures.
Mashups and Legal Issues
Along with mashups come questions about privacy, the protection of intellectual property, and the ethics of sharing or borrowing information from online sources. What exactly is fair use, when it comes to information that's posted in a public forum? Is the the free flow of information more important than copyright? What recourse should content providers have when their content is re-used in a way they don't like?
Suppose you posted a photo of your child on Flickr, and someone else featured it on an "Ugliest Babies on the Web" site? What if you invested months building an online database, then another site scraped your pages and incorporated that data into their own site? Is it okay to take clips from funny videos on YouTube, make your own composite video and sell it?
In broader terms, just because there is an API or a public feed, does that mean it's fair game to do ANYTHING with those building blocks? Most would say no -- that people creating mashups should seek permission from the sources they're using. That's good advice, if only to steer clear of copyright infringement lawsuits, but common sense and common decency should come into the mix as well. And if you're using an API, read the small print to see if your derivative work can be used for commercial purposes.
Do you have comments on mashups? Post your thoughts below...
Posted by Bob Rankin on 1 Nov 2007
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- What is a Mashup? (Posted: 1 Nov 2007)
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