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Web mash-ups: 1+1=3

Jan. 16, 2006
CONTROL Senior Tech Editor Dan Hebert, PE, takes an in-depth look at a new web technology that will affect how you'll use the Internet, and how this latest trend could be applied to automation.
By Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical EditorEVER FIND yourself jumping from one web site to another to get information on a specific topic? You’re not alone, but a new way to use web technology promises to provide relief, save you time, and increase your efficiency.According to a recent article, “Mashing the Web,” in the Sept. 15, 2005, issue of the international newsmagazine, The Economist, web mash-ups combine websites to produce useful hybrid sites. Mash-ups are a great illustration of the Internet's underlying philosophy: open standards allow and promote unexpected forms of innovation.Paul Levine, the general manager of Yahoo! Local, a subsidiary of one of the web's most popular sites, told The Economist, “Mash-ups are emblematic of the direction of the web.” By building their sites using open standards, and so making it easier for customers and developers to build other sites that plug into them, companies can both encourage innovation and boost their own popularity.As often happens online, The Economist says, this trend is being driven from the bottom up by users. Most mash-ups happen without the sites that supply the data even knowing about it. For example, The Economist reported that Greg Sadesky, a programmer based in Quebec City, grabbed textual data from Yahoo! Traffic and map data from Google without consulting either firm, to create a mash-up that produces traffic maps.The Economist article adds that Chris Smoak, who lives in Seattle, has mashed together several traffic, web-cam, transport-information and map sites to create Seattle Bus Monster, a public-transit site for the Seattle area. The rise of blogs has spurred the mash-up trend by bringing programmers together to discuss new ideas and tricks.Useful applications in the process automation industry abound. A mash-up could be created that combines employment ads from various sites along with a map. This mash-up would dynamically show available process automation job openings superimposed upon a geographic area specified by the job hunter. Not many people search for a job without at least considering location, so this mash-up would help to narrow job searches quickly. One of the biggest problems with job searches is that many different sites, from Monster to Hot Jobs to industry specific sites like our own ControlGlobal.com, contain process automation job openings. A mash-up that pulled together relevant job openings from many sites and allowed users to simultaneously search all of these sites based on their own custom criteria would be a huge time saver.Similarly, wireless tracking and tracing is an important and growing trend in the process industries, and it would be great if there were an easy way to continually track mobile assets such as computers, storage containers, and work-in-process inventory. Extracting mapping data from a site such as Google or Yahoo! and combining this data with information on asset locations would create a company-specific mobile asset tracking site. Access to the site could be restricted to relevant users in the company.This track-and-trace mash-up could be especially useful to track the RFID tags now placed on many food and drug products. These products are scanned multiple times throughout the supply chain. Overlaying geographic location from each scan on a map and connecting the dots would graphically show the path to market for each product.How does your company find system integrators? There are hundreds of automation integrators located across North America and thousands worldwide, each specializing in certain geographical and process areas. A mash-up that pulled together information from the top 20 or so system integrators worldwide could be most helpful. This system integrator mash-up would allow you to search for an appropriate firm based on your specific search criteria, and the site could dynamically update to reflect changes at each integrator.Industry events are another area where a mash-up would be a big time saver. Instead of searching through each vendor and organization web site to find when and where their events were going to be held, you could go to one site that would list all automation industry events in chronological fashion.There is no shortage of bright programmers in process automation, and these programmers are sure to come up with many other web mash-up ideas. Mashing will also get easier as big websites start to cater to programmers’ needs.The web site Wikepedia not only explains the mash-up concept in detail, it also includes numerous links to other sites that detail programming techniques.Firms are happy to see their sites get mashed. At the Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco this summer, Brett Taylor, the product manager of Google Maps, told The Economist that “everyone is doing it already” — so why fight it? “A mash-up lets a company like Google tap into the creativity of the world's programmers,” said conference chairman Nathan Torkington of O'Reilly Media to The Economist.

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