Charles Arthur: The Geek

Stuck on you: the magic trick that's changing the web
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The Independent Online

Questions like this, and the emerging answers to them, are part of what the people in the engine room of the web are calling "Web 2.0".

Simply having a bunch of webcams online doesn't qualify for the moniker of "Web 2.0", though. No, for that you need to have something like Greg McCarroll's map of his credit-card spending, generated using Google's new Maps service. (See it at http://www.mccarroll.org.uk/~gem/creditcardtracker/). It's something he says he threw together using Javascript (most commonly used to generate pop-up adverts). "It's pretty obvious that I live in London, even though I haven't told the program that," he remarks.

Not enough? How about an American example, www.housingmaps.com, which pulls together data from the online classified company craigslist.com and lays it over a Google Maps display. Choose a city, choose a price you're willing to pay, and it shows you the available apartments and their locations.

What's smart about housingmaps.com, and illustrates the Web 2.0 concept, is that it's not built by Google or Craigslist. It's a hybrid of both, the brainchild of Paul Rademacher, whose day job is doing the software animation tools for Dreamworks, the company that made Shrek.

The latter fact gives you some idea of the calibre of people who are toying with Web 2.0 ideas, though you don't have to be that high-flying to participate. A knowledge of how to use the glues that tie websites together suffices.

What's more is that the big websites are turning themselves into glue factories right now, because they recognise that having people create things like housingmaps.com benefits them. It's good for Google to have people using maps.google.com rather than Microsoft's mappoint.msn.com because that means more people hear the Google name and see adverts that Google places.

Companies such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo! and even the photo-sharing website Flickr unleash this glue by publicising their "APIs" - application programming interfaces, more easily understood as spots on the site that outside programs can stick to. Housingmaps. com is made feasible by Google Maps having a public API. Push the public data from Craigslist into a Google Maps generator, using the Google Maps API, and voilà.

This sort of magic trick works with "old" sites too, but the principal power comes out of having really clever sites like the mapping and "earth" sites that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are all competing to wow us with. Then you overlay some of the "Web 1.0" sites on top and suddenly you can picture how all the disparate data fit together in a new way.

And what does this have to do with getting home when the traffic's bad? How about linking up the data coming from the traffic webcams and the data from the Underground and overground railways to show where the hotspots in London's transport are, and hence what to avoid? It would only need information that's out there already. That's the sort of thing the web ought to be useful for.

http://www.charlesarthur.com/blog/

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