Submitted by David Hobbs on 12 December 2007 - 1:34am
New sites with dynamic, interactive functionality using data from different sources and allowing the user to interact with the data are exciting to see (examples: geo.worldbank.org and carma.org). But how do we unleash this functionality so that non-programmers can create interaction like this? We have content management systems that allow more people to easily add content to sites. But I think we should be driving toward an environment where users can a) take data from a variety of sources and b) create interactive sites based on this data. Maps are the most prominent example, but interactive tables are also important. Let's review where we are now:
We have sites already applying Google maps and other interactive functionality to various data sources (examples above).
Programmers have resources/examples/documentation for creating these types of sites (see Programmable Web for example).
Various APIs have been exposed for interacting and using data (examples).
We have tools like Yahoo Pipes that allow advanced users (probably not needing full-blown programmer skills) to create mashups. That said Yahoo Pipes is now focused on consuming/dealing with RSS feeds (the Fetch Data Module is supposed to more general XML, I had problems getting it to do so -- if you look at examples using DC crime data, you see it's RSS with some customization). In addition, this is a hosted solution, so you're at the mercy of Yahoo if you host a mashup with them (I noted Yahoo Pipes having problems accessing feeds intermittently even in my brief testing).
There are probably other similar examples of specialized tools, but I know of Swivel, which allows you to create your own graphs of data.
Here are the types of interactive functionality that I think we should be allowing non-programmers (let's call these folks "Interaction Publisher", riffing off the role of "Content Publisher") to create:
Interactive data tables. Interaction Publisher should be able to point at one (or multiple) data source, and indicate which columns/attributes to display in a table. The Interaction Publisher should also indicate which attributes should be selectable (in pulldowns for example) be the end user. Of course some theming / design and annotation should be possible.
Interactive maps. Interaction Publisher should be able to point at a data source, the attributes containing the locations, and what data to show for each location (along with the extent of the default map and formatting). Also, please can we get rid of the points / waypoints / circles that indicate arbitrary points that are used to indicate data for a large area (for example, a pointer to the capital for a country), and instead highlight the whole area (for example, the whole country). Ideally the Interaction Publisher will be able to indicate further interaction with the map (for example, displaying different layers of a map -- if not full-blown layers, then at least indicating different sets of waypoints to display).
Custom data. The Interaction Publisher should also be able to easily publish their own data/content, and pull their data into an interactive feature (for instance, this could even be a simple search on a little database / resource center the user has). An extension of this would be including some mechanism for overriding other data sources data points (of course this should somehow be indicated on the map/table so it isn't misleading).
Wizard-like functionality. The Interaction Publisher should not have to resort to XPATH, XSL, or programming in PHP / Perl / whatever.
Sounds nice -- but how would this be possible? One possible step is for institutions to expose their data in a consistent manner (at least each institution exposing its own data in consistently). This would involve something of a meta-API, where you are consistent about:
Attributes that can be queried. Perhaps the list would be just topics and countries, for example. The topics lists should be something that the outside world will understand rather than an organization-centric list. If you have multiple topics lists, then it would be preferable if all systems were moved to a single topics list (even if that meant two topics lists per system).
Consistent exposure of non-standard attributes. The issue of consistent query parameters was covered above -- this means that all systems are queried on the same parameters. But of course some systems will need to provide other attributes (such as, say, "Population"). This could be done in a custom namespace in RSS as the DC crime data (see xml) does in its Atom feed (which Yahoo Pipes, for example, can consume). This could be documented, and the consumer of the data could handle this.
Some potential ways of inching toward the goal of the non-developer Interaction Designer easily being able to publish dynamic, interactive features would be:
Create some simple wizards in CMSes. So that we aren't relying on, for example, Yahoo Pipes for hosting our interaction, we may wish to start including simple wizards in our CMSes. For example, one could be for interactive tables that just had one data source and three columns.
Push for stronger hosted interactive feature builders. For example, Yahoo Pipes perhaps could include some of the features mentioned in this email (for example, a tool for creating interactive maps, or a tool for creating a pulldown of options to drive a Google map.
Here's a little chart displaying some of the ideas in this post (also see pdf version):
I'd really like your comments on this post. Specifically:
Is the role of Interaction Publisher important?
How could we enable this role?
What ideas above do you think would work and which would not work?
Is their a need for a separate generic standard XML from RSS feeds, or should an institution's RSS just be extended to include custom portions?