Mashups: Bringing Together Data from Different Sources

“Mashup” started as a popular word in the world of club music. For several years, people have been combining rock music clips with rap clips into mashups for dance clubs and parties. Really fancy mashups merge several different types of music-rock, rap, techno-all into one dance tune. A mashup is also a kind of video. Just like with a music mashup, a video mashup uses images from different sources, merging them together and superimposing them to one-another to form a new, dynamic and often surrealistic effect.

Mashups have moved beyond music and video and into the world of the Web and business intelligence. In the Web world, mashups have the same basic idea as with dance music and video-combining otherwise discrete components into a single aggregate. BI mashups fall into different categories, such as overlay mashups, widgets and dashboards.

Overlay mashups merge data from more than one source into a single user-controlled feature; a typical example is combining business metrics (e.g. sales by rep) with Google Maps. Widgets are small HTML chunks of a third party site that are embedded and executed as an element of another-for example, a chart from a BI site or a You Tube video may be embedded and displayed in a news site or blog. A dashboard, instead, is a single Web page containing various panels each displaying a different object that may be a graph or chart, a Web site, RSS feeds and so on.

In the world of Web 2.0-and consequently BI 2.0-mashups are a useful, interactive tool in the hands of the business end user. First of all, they provide a way to integrate different data and visualize the results in a coherent and persuasive manner. Then, when enhanced by technologies like Flash and AJAX, and when featuring drill-down and drill-through capability, they become some of the most versatile and visually-powerful BI instruments in the decision-maker’s arsenal.

Let us now explore overlay mashups, widgets and dashboards separately, taking a look at what they are, what technologies they employ and what benefit they give the business end user.

Overlay Mashups

Overlay mashups are the combination of two or more data sources for use in a single Web-based feature or application.

A common example of the overlay mashup is the placement of charts, graphs and other business-relevant data onto a map. Google, for example, publishes an open API that allows software vendors and developers to mash up geographically-relevant information with Google Maps. Your BI application may show pins on a Web-based map to represent customer locations. It may color those pins to reflect customer segments. When you mouse over a pin, interactive charts or graphs may pop-up dynamically showing recent sales activity and customer service information for that location.

Map mashups are the first, and perhaps most intuitive example of overlay mashups. Maps are so familiar that overlaying a drillable chart or graph onto a map is a simple extension of the paradigm. The next steps beyond maps will probably also require an intuitive context. For example, an architectural extension of the map concept might include a mashup of live security video feeds and entry/exit statistics overlaid onto premises maps and floor plans. The floor plan context may also be used to support shop-floor materiel movement, productivity and quality charts and graphs.

All of these examples involve spatial contexts such as maps and floor plans. As business intelligence users become more accustomed to mashups, the model may eventually be extended to show inventory and lead-times overlaid on a non-geographic supply chain model. Productivity, quality metrics and other worker performance management metrics could be overlaid on work-flow and process maps.

There are two essential ingredients for overlay mashups to work. The first is an abundance of open APIs, such as the one published for Google Maps. In addition to the open APIs, the BI tools themselves need to be modular in design and Web-based. XML and HTML are the natural vehicles to make this level of integration happen.

Widgets

Widgets are small HTML chunks from a third-party site that are embedded and executed on a Web page. An everyday example of this would be a You Tube video that the user can watch by clicking on it without exiting the page in which the video is embedded.

Widgets fall into the category of mashups because information from two different sources or servers-the one hosting the site, plus the third party source from which the widget comes-is combined.

The role of widgets is primarily to add variety and dynamism to a site. For example, a financial-market blogger may embed a NASDAQ real-time quote chart on his Web page to add a useful and dynamic element to it. Or, a sports news Web site may have a streaming video embedded as a widget to show the week’s best touch-down.

In BI, widgets have the same function than in any other Internet environment, which is to give users access to useful content from a third party site without opening another Web browser. In the past, access to third-party Web content of this type was primarily effected through links, which involved leaving the page being currently viewed or having to open a new window.

From a technical standpoint, widgets are fairly easy to execute. All that is required is access to the server of the host page and that of the site producing the widget. With their easy deployment and Web 2.0-like dynamic feel, it is not illogical to foresee that this dynamic and easily-executable form of mashups will keep growing in the BI world.

Dashboards as Mashups

IT or corporate dashboards can also be viewed as mashups because they represent a means of bringing together different visual representations into a unified picture for an end user. Dashboards are becoming increasingly common in business intelligence applications, but we are still in the early stages of this trend. The dashboards we see today include interactive and drillable charts grouped together into a single window. The most flexible dashboards are built with AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) which allows individual objects (charts, graphs, etc) to be refreshed and repositioned without refreshing the entire browser window.

Currently, many dashboards represent data from a single database or data warehouse. While the dashboard itself may contain several individual charts and graphs, the underlying data most often comes from a single data source. For example, a country sales manager might use his dashboard to show the current sales pipeline, quarterly projections, regional sales performance and sales by product. All of these individual report objects are populated by the company’s data warehouse.

With the more sophisticated BI products, however, data can be also brought together on a dashboard from different data sources – for example different databases, plus Web services, flat files, RSS feeds, etc.

Benefits of Mashups

In the world of Web 2.0 and BI 2.0, mashups that are interactive and dynamic are appreciated by business end users. Interactivity can come in the form of drill-down or drill-through capability, as well as in the ability to use the Web-based feature or solution as a dedicated desktop application. And, a mashup can be made dynamic through the use of Flash technology, for example, by enabling key performance indicators, graphs or charts to update dynamically when the page is opened or refreshed.

Business intelligence features that have an interactive feel and intuitive, browser-based navigation help spread BI to a wider and deeper range of business end users. This model, called pervasive BI, is defined by accessibility of reporting and analysis tools to non-technical end users across organizations. Although mashups and dashboards are not the only features conducive to pervasive BI, they are a great example of how by integrating familiar Web 2.0 capabilities into a BI solution help more end users have access to the data and information they need.

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