I’ve come across two articles in the mainstream news media in less than a week on mashups. The New York Times has an article With Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking that focuses on mapping mashups. The Wall Street Journal today has ‘Mashups’ Sew Data Together (subscription required).
It certainly seems like there are enough useful mashups already that mainstream press is taking notice at the concept. However, mashups are really a fuzzy collection of three related applications: data visualization, data integration, and data collection. The unifying concept being that mashups do them using lightweight Web interfaces.
The majority of existing mashups don’t do much more than data visualization, usually showing location-related information on a map. This doesn’t involve any data integration as it simply takes data from one source and feeds them to a visualization (i.e. mapping) engine.
Some mashups are starting to take data from more than one Web source (or even just scraping from different Web sites) and create new applications by integrating those data. Microformat is targeted at exactly this kind of mashup. As with traditional data integration projects, deep integration is usually thwarted by incompatible data definitions. The main hope is that lightweight integration, together with the large number of data sources, will produce a lot of mashups. Even though these mashups are not too sophisticated individually, collectively they will generate a lot of value. Think of the lightweight Web interfaces as the duct tape of data.
Finally, mashups are also about data collection. That’s never stated as any mashup’s primary goal but is often a byproduct of the useful ones. The mapping APIs, for example, encourage the creation of many geographically-related data collections, as the NYT article points out. People are willing to contribute data, but they do want to see immediate gratification from such contributions, and good mashups can show them that. Furthermore, as operating systems win by building an ecosystem of applications around them, Web APIs depend on an ecosystem of data sources to turn them into platforms. I’d encourage anyone developing mashup APIs to think deeply about how people can potentially create data collections on top of their interfaces. An incoherent set of APIs doesn’t make a platform, just like a collection of device drivers doesn’t make an operating system.