Two Days, One Great Mashup

Mashups are intriguing because you can create new stories from data that is accessible yet completely independent — multiple datasets merging in a way that was not expected,” said Ryan McKeel, Digital Assets Applications Developer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, whose Open Energy Initiative (OpenEI.org) team helped build the Energy Data Mashup. “For instance, if you combine U.S. Census data with crime and voting records, you start painting a unique story that none of the data providers could have anticipated.”

The team from the U.S. Department of Energy decided on this mashup because they knew that, especially these days, people want to save money, and utility bills are one way to do that. With free, open public data, they could pull together many datasets using the linked-data (“Semantic Web”) technology that puts everything in the same format. Linked data makes it easy to “zipper” databases together to give consumers new insight into “how to be smart about energy consumption and costs,” says McKeel.

The idea is, the more information the public has, the better decisions they will be able to make. The U.S. Department of Energy is investing in developing the Smart Grid across the country, which will make it possible for people to understand how much energy is being consumed and at what times. As a result, consumers and utilities will have more control over energy usage, which will help reduce the peak load and shift energy usage to off-peak time periods.

The team’s members included Greg Adel, Business Analyst on the International Trade Administration’s Enterprise Architecture Team; Chris Musialek of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA); and Susan Turnbull, Senior Program Advisor in the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. They knew they could accomplish such a mashup in the incredibly short time of less than two days because the databases were easily available. Also a best practice, says McKeel, is to start with an existing mashup so that you are not creating everything from scratch. They started with a mashup from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (one of the world leaders in linked data), added cities and changed the map’s layout. Here are a few steps that show how they did it:

screen shot number 1 of Energy Data Mashup development in progress
A key lesson is that you will not get it right the first time. Here, the latitude and longitude coordinates of Atlanta, Georgia, were misidentified, placing Atlanta in Eastern Europe!

screen shot number 2 of Energy Data Mashup development in progress
This is an example of starting with a mashup that has already been built (left), then focusing on the elements that are relevant to the mashup you’re developing. The Open EI team tweaked the RPI map to show only the continental United States, for instance (right).

screen shot number 3 of Energy Data Mashup development in progress
The final screen shot shows the results for Portland, Oregon. People can go to this application and learn about state and city incentives to save money on electricity, local electric company rates according to time and season, and information on federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Smart Grid projects in their area.

This mashup is just the beginning, says McKeel. “What’s so cool about linked open data is that you can pull from all these different repositories. It’s a common format that you can use to easily create stories.

“This mashup could be expanded by anybody in the public,” he adds. “Anybody could take the source code and add another city or add other data sources. There’s no licensing fee because it’s open data and it’s free software.”

Mashups give people the power to see information in new ways, says McKeel, adding, “Part of my job is to find relevant stories. Mashups are empowering because the public can take open data and create new charts, maps and stories that may not exist yet in the media. When individuals can weave their own stories based on a good idea and several data sources, it further frees information and expands the public’s comprehension of what is happening in their city, state and country.”

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