Book Review of How to Do Everything With Web 2.0 Mashups, By Mike Nardine

Book Review of How to Do Everything With Web 2.0 Mashups
By Mike Nardine

How To Do Everything With Web 2.0 Mashups By Jesse Feiler
McGraw Hill 2008

This book grows on you. I originally purchased it to find out something about mashups. I'd come across the term before and hadn't been satisfied with the explanations I'd found. This book at once did an admirable job of that; I'm satisfied I now know a mashup when I see one.

What put me off about the book was its almost mechanical approach. Written in terse, no-nonsense unemotional prose, it had none of the humorous dry quips I'd come to appreciate in other Internet-related books. It drove from point to point as if building a house rather than a concept. Liberal arts major that I am, I guess I'm uncomfortable with that. Of course it's possible others, more technically inclined than I, might enjoy the book precisely because of this approach.

The book's first chapter is titled "Welcome to the World of Mashups" and that's the last bit of gratuitous amicability you'll find. After that it's, bang! "Understanding the Mashup World;" and bang! "Use XML to Structure Data;" and bang! "Use JavaScript to Script the Mashup Page," and so forth until your head spins. I set the book aside.

I picked it up again a month or so later when I suddenly discovered that it had done an excellent job of acquainting me with the central mysteries of mashups. I finally recognized them for what they were when I came across them, and found the book had given me the ability to actually understand how they did what they were doing. I wasn't quite ready to start building my own mashups, but I did enjoy the feeling that I'd learned something interesting and wanted to learn more-I guess that might be even more important than the humor I found in some lesser books.

Instead of struggling against it I found myself appreciating the way the book broke mashups down into their component parts and put them back together. Anyone who has struggled with JavaScript, RSS, XML, Php and API's as separate unrelated entities will get a sudden flash of understanding from each seeing them now working as parts of a larger whole. Still, I wish the author put a bit more of himself into the prose.

Mike Nardine operates Mike sells domains and hosts websites at competitive rates. He reviews books at

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Web 2.0 For Rookies: Mashups

A mashup is the combining of two or more sources of data to form a new data set. In principle, there is not really any difference between a mashup and the situation in which you trawl a few websites for data, paste the data you find into a spreadsheet, and insert some formulae to work on the data to yield different, and potentially more interesting and revealing, results.

The kind of mashup we're talking about here is (usually) on the web, and is updated automatically in real time.
A kind of low-level mashup is, I would say, inserting an rss feed into your home page so that people can see what you've been saying on Twitter, or the comments people have been making about your articles. If you think about it, that meets the criteria for a mashup which I have just outlined: it's on the web, it combines one set of data (the comments) with another (your blog's front page) to yield information that is updated in real time, ie immediately.

You could argue that this isn't a real mashup in the sense that it doesn't reveal anything new, and certainly doesn't give you anything you could not have found anyway. However, by adding the comments to the front page of your blog, it provides the visitor with a richer experience and, furthermore, saves you and them time: why go looking for the data if if you can have it delivered.

More adventurous mashups combine data from sources you may not know exists, or does so a lot faster than you could without assistance.

Take Trendsmap, for example. This takes Twitter trends and places them on a world map. Want to see what's hot news in British Columbia right now? Look no further. Is this a solution looking for a problem? Not if you're a journalist or a blogger wishing to write about the latest news on everyone's lips.

It should be obvious by now that this sort of application does not merely present you with two or more sets of data. By combining the data sets in new ways, the information you obtain is itself different to what would otherwise have been the case. Anyone who has ever used a pivot table in Excel will know exactly what I'm talking about: by mashing up the data, you start to see patterns that were hitherto hidden.

This has business and social applications too. The UK government has recently made publicly available sets of data in ways that techies can use them to create mashups, as described in Hacking For Good Reasons. Mashups which let you see what jobs are available locally without having to stir from your kitchen table, or which tell you which areas of your town are safest, or what was in the news when your local politicians were waxing lyrical to the press -- all these things matter to real people.

As far as business is concerned, mashups can form an essential component of a company's data-gathering armoury. The real-time characteristic of mashups can even be put to use for defence purposes.
An interesting exercise for students might be to ask them to come up with ideas for mashups. They can explain why they think the mashup would be useful, and who for, and what data sets they would need in order for it to work. They would not necessarily have to create the mashups, although as part of a unit on sequencing (programming), or in an after-school club, such an exercise could be very interesting indeed. The idea would definitely fit in with the section in the National Curriculum (in England and Wales) which looks at the effects of technology in Society and the importance of client feedback. Other curricular include similar demands.

In many respects, mashups are among the most exciting of Web 2.0 applications -- not least because they are all different from each other.