Mashing up is hard to do

Mashups, what. Two or more data sources or works combined to become a new data source or work. A media cultural term (cf Steinski) now applied to web applications; comparable to the tradition of data overlay in cartography and analysis mapping. Mashup is also a curious marketing phenomenon.

Interoperability, what. The exchange and reuse of data and code from machine to machine without human intervention or interpolation, by means of translatable or common interfaces and description languages. The metaphor is lego bricks with interoperable bumps and notches.

Business model, what. A license to extract profit from an information imbalance. Or, a means of sustaining and rewarding participation in a growing activity.

The UK Geospatial Mashups event at the Ordnance Survey on the 20th October was a meeting of the tribes, but I found it a surprisingly business-oriented affair; Mikel Maron captured the general tone in his writeup. In the closing panel session there was much talk of business models based on the ability to “mash up” different sources of information from online services. There really seemed to be an acceptance that the open and collaborative production of data and knowledge allows for the provision of better services and creation of more value.

Every question about business models had an unspoken coda, seemed like a half-finished sentence. “How can we find a business model for this (that is is based on providing open access to data)?” “How can we pay for the cost of collection and maintenance (of a body of data that is openly and freely available)?”.

For me, the answer to that question is contained in another question asked that day, by a local council representative in the audience. They are obliged to buy a UK wide license for postcode geocoding and could in theory just use a 25-per-day “free” lookups on the Post Office’s online service in their own online applications. The local council doesn’t need a National Spatial Data Infrastructure to exist.

Yet through their existing knowledge base about addresses, postcodes, locations and the fact that they manage a lot of public services which collect often literal “drive-by data” about the locality – social workers on visits, refuse collection services, disabled transport services – the local council is in a good position to collect and maintain its own body of changes. A positive analogy is a solar-powered household or neighborhood selling its electricity surplus back to the National Grid. The current situation equates to giving the surplus away and then having to buy a subscription to it back.

There’s already at least one local authority contributing recommended bicycle route data to OpenStreetmap, that isn’t on centralised maps. A piece by Charles Arthur in today’s Guardian, From postcodes to roads, we can collect it ourselves talks of a new, commercially-based open mapping project as well as two complementary efforts to build a free of copyright postcode location database.

The best way to demonstrate the power of collaborative mapping and how the willingness and dedication of just a few ordinary citizens can produce tremendously useful public resources, free for reuse and redistribution. The OpenStreetmap project and its expanding community are demonstrating this approach very well. At the UK Geospatial Mashups event, Sean Phelan, founder of Multimap, said – “I am completely convinced by the OpenStreetmap presentation that OpenStreetmap is viable”. (The quality of the editing environment in JOSM and the presentation quality of Osmarender both seemed very compelling to the audience.) I hope all these efforts will go on to demonstrate that data quality really can be had in a free, peer-based form where a lot of contributions are artefacts of other work.

The social practise for the open and collaborative production of geodata is there already, whether or not there is a visible “business model” accompanying it; if money is needed to support knowledge-generating activities directly, then some business maintenance model has to be found, but perhaps support for them can be a byproduct of other business…

3 thoughts on “Mashing up is hard to do”

  1. Another great post Jo that really brings out the issues really clearly. I particularly like your point about local councils as producers of information and the suggestion for ‘data peering’: I share date freely with you because you share data freely with me. Of course we need to be aware of the difficulties: taking your analogy of selling surplus electricity back to the national grid it is noteworthy that this is difficult to implement — for example what price do you trade at — and is not currently taking place on any substantial scale.

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