The Web, for all its usefulness, is still a fairly unorganized collection of information. For years, programmers have been connecting disparate bits of information by making “mashups,” websites that combine information from two or more sources, such as Google maps and Craigslist rental listings. But mashup making has remained the domain of geeks who know how to program, or at least highly motivated novices who want to learn.
A new research project from Intel Research, in Berkeley, CA, is trying to take some of the mystery out of crafting a mashup. Called Mash Maker, the project aims to let people use their ordinary Web browsers to combine information from different sites. If, for example, you are looking at apartments on Craigslist, you can easily add information about nearby restaurants from Yelp, a recommendation site, essentially augmenting the data on the Craigslist page. With another few clicks of a button, you can put the apartments and Yelp listings on a Google map, which will also appear within the Craigslist page. The next time you visit the Craigslist page, you can reopen the mashup, and it will automatically use new data from the site.
The idea, says Robert Ennals, is to let people create their own custom-made Web. “Right now, the Web is a collection of islands; each has its own information, but they aren’t really interconnected and personalized for you,” he says. “We’re trying to move to where the Web is a single source of interconnected knowledge, presenting information that you want to see the way you want to see it.”
Mash Maker is one of a handful of services and products intended to help the motivated noncoder combine information from different websites. Last year, Microsoft introduced Popfly, a programming environment that makes it simple for nonexperts to build mashups. Yahoo Pipes is another recent project that lets people meld data from myriad sources–for instance, by combining news feeds from Digg and Slashdot that contain the word “software.” (See “A More Personalized Internet?”) And IBM is leading the effort to bring mashup building to the workplace, with Lotus Mashups, a program that lets people combine data from different business applications. (See “IBM to Release Mashup Software.”)
Mash Maker differs mainly in its attempt to use the browser itself as mashup-making tool. Mash Maker is a downloadable program that integrates itself into the Firefox browser (versions for other browsers are planned for the future). Once it’s installed, it can be used on a number of different programming levels, explains Ennals. For the average Web user with no interest in building her own mashups, Mash Maker will suggest premade mashups tailored to the sites she visits. For instance, if she goes to Facebook, it might suggest a mashup that would put the profile pictures of her friends on a map. If she goes to Expedia.com, it might suggest a mashup that adds information about legroom for different flights.
The next level of Mash Maker use, Ennals says, is building your own mashup. To do this, you use widgets, or little programs that appear in a side panel within the browser. To build the previously mentioned mashup of Craigslist, Yelp, and Google maps, the user would go to Craigslist, pull up the listings for a particular neighborhood–say, Bernal Heights in San Francisco–and click on the “address” widget. Immediately, address icons appear next to all the listings on the page. Then the user opens another tab in the browser and goes to the Yelp page, where she searches for restaurants in Bernal Heights and selects the “copy” widget. Going back to the Craigslist page, she selects the “paste” widget, and restaurant review icons pop up next to the address icons. To map both the Craigslist and the Yelp information, she selects the icons for the apartments and restaurant ratings she’s interested in, then clicks the Google Maps widget in the side panel. The mashup can be saved into Mash Maker’s public repository so that others in the community can use it.