When it comes to information access, the Internet is a double-edged sword. At no time in human history have we had so much information available or in such an easily accessible format (through just a few mouse clicks). But frequently, we're so overloaded with information that we can't make much sense of it.
Web mashups are one technique that can make Web-based data more useful. Traditional mashups blend information from multiple sources. Sometimes, however, they just reinterpret existing data from a single source. Either way, mashups present the results in a compelling, innovative fashion. Often, the information is displayed in visually powerful ways that make it much more valuable and understandable to users.
For example, Housingmaps.com is a mashup that applies real estate information, such as apartments for rent or homes for sale, from Craigslist to Google Maps. The end result is a system that lets you sort available apartments and homes by price and location. You can also see each listing marked on an interactive map, allowing you to quickly and efficiently browse your many options.
These kinds of mashups are possible because a multitude of Web sites, including Craigslist, use open APIs (application programming interfaces) that let innovative programmers retrieve data easily from a site using a standard set of programming rules. Then, with a bit of brilliant coding, programmers can piece together mashups that display that site's data in a multitude of ways.
Just as there are an awful lot of sites to explore at random, there are tons of mashups scattered across the Web, and it can be hard to figure out which ones might be useful. There are mashups for news, music, videos, shopping and a whole lot more.
We've gathered five of our favorite mashups for you to try. Keep reading to learn more about mashups that we think are fun and functional.
You're probably familiar with Twitter, which lets people send and read text messages of 140 or fewer characters. Trendsmap.com is a mashup that combines popular, location-specific Twitter topics with Google Maps. It's basically like having your finger on the digital pulse of just about any town or city where people actively use Twitter.
So, if you want to know which issues are hot with people living in Denver, you can just view a map of the city and see the most tweeted subjects pop up on the map in real time.
In Denver, the local Broncos football team is always on locals' minds. Click the Broncos tag and you'll see a live stream of tweets unfold, all detailing people's thoughts on this particular NFL team, including links to recent news stories, business-related articles, and, of course, gossip about potential player trades or team infighting.
Music buffs love finding ever more information about their favorite melodies. SongDNA is a bit like a precision Internet search for individual songs. Simply enter the name of a musician and a song title, and SongDNA pulls up an abundance of information about that specific tune. You'll discover how well the song performed on the pop charts, view lyrics, and find links to videos of studio and live versions of the song.
You can also see on which albums the song appears -- and then buy the song or album immediately. Or, you can check out the Twitter vibe to get a feel for what people are saying about the tune. But beware: Not everyone may like the new Britney Spears hit as much as you do.
This mashup works as an application that installs on your smartphone. You can also use it on your regular computer, but only if you use the Opera Web browser -- SongDNA works as a plug-in for this browser.
The U.S. government has a wealth of raw data concerning a broad cross-section of its society. A lot of that data is housed at the Web site Data.gov. But without a clever mashup, there's no easy way to digest all of these numbers.
ThisWeKnow.org is a mashup that highlights and organizes some of the critical portions of Data.gov by community. You can view details on the makeup of a city's population, as well as how many of those people are homeowners or renters.
You can see whether the community has had a recent influx of new residents. The mashup also displays the number of factories in town and allows you to view local cancer statistics.
Curious about a location's legislative importance? You can peek into any potential legislation that's been introduced by members of Congress for that area.
The American government has collected a mind-numbing amount of national figures and data. With ThisWeKnow, you have a quick, easy-to-understand way to glimpse into the statistical heart of communities all over the country.
In a political atmosphere that often seems increasingly polarized, many Americans worry about the dependability of their news sources. They may fear that if their favorite reporters veer too far right or left, they are missing out on the big picture.
The Poligraft.com mashup attempts to shed light on any online political news story. Just copy and paste an article's link or full text into Poligraft, and the mashup works its magic, returning detailed information about all of the politicians and newsworthy people in the piece.
In many cases, Poligraft will list the article's sources and amounts of aggregated contributions each politician received. With more detailed articles, you'll also see which industries made the biggest campaign contributions to an official.
Poligraft works by blending data from the National Institute for Money in State Politics and the Center for Responsive Politics. If you're skeptical of this mashup's accuracy, you can delve into Poligraft's associated database, called Transparency Data, and browse the numbers yourself.
In short, Poligraft lets you read between the lines of important political stories -- no matter the leanings of the reporter (or how suspicious the statements of a politician), you'll see that the money never lies.
You can buy just about anything imaginable from Amazon.com. But the Web site doesn't have a built-in price tracker, and that's where TheTracktor.com comes in.
This mashup helps you acquire pricing information that will aid you in making informed purchasing decisions. You can see the pricing history of any item, so you'll know if you just missed out on a steep discount. Dates for those price drops are listed as well, which is extremely helpful if you anticipate a seasonal price shift. Are snow blowers really cheaper in July? Now you'll know.
Even better, you're able to designate the price you're hoping to pay for a specific product. For example, if you'd love to buy that new ballet tutu once it falls below $400, The Tracktor will email you a notification when that $399 price tag becomes a reality.
As you can see, mashups range from frivolous to indispensable. With a few keyword searches, you may be able to find the perfect mashup for your specific needs -- and then you can start mashing an overwhelming amount of Web data into truly usable information.
A chemical used in fast food french fries and tire cleaner may cure baldness. HowStuffWorks checks it out.
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