On openness, web services and ‘mash-ups’

Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton is fed up with software vendors that are ‘moving towards’ web services. During a refreshing visit with the geo-information community, he learns how ‘mash-ups’ of publicly available information are delivering serendipitous insights for free. Inspired, he rolls his own mash-up of the recent Woodmac survey with Transparency International’s corruption index.

When I hear that a company is ‘moving towards’ a ‘services-oriented’ architecture my skeptical mind interprets this as meaning that they are not in a hurry to get there. This suspicion is borne out in a recent release (page 10) from Petrolink including the statement, ‘By using neutral interfaces, operators are less reliant on ‘integrated offerings’ from the larger service providers and can deploy best of breed solutions from other specialized vendors’. In other words, web services will likely work against the major vendors—hence their reluctance to adopt them.


It was therefore with some surprise that I stumbled across a community whose very existence is based on web services, on openness and on a seeming disregard for commercial considerations. My encounter took place at the ‘Geo Mash-Up’ event hosted by the Ordinance Survey in Southampton, UK.


What is a mash-up? I was lucky to get a ride from the airport with Charles Kennelly who, as well as being a program manager with ESRI UK, is a DJ. He showed me how two pieces of music are mashed into one, matching their pitch and rhythms. Thus a rapper can rap over a more ‘classical’ oeuvre—the Steve Miller band being a popular choice. Translating the mash-up concept into software, all you need is some freely-available web resources. A few lines of code are used—either to leverage an application programming interface if there is one—or failing that, to ‘scrape’ websites for their content, perhaps with a few lines of Perl.

Google Map

Google Map is the mash-up equivalent of the Steve Miller band and is the backdrop to many mash-ups. If you are desperate in San Francisco you will be interested in paul.kedrosky.com/publicloos/. If you are into Wikipedia, you might like to spatialize the encyclopedia with webkuehn.de/hobbys/wikipedia/geokoordinaten/index_en.htm. Oil IT Journal has, without realizing it, already reported on an oil and gas mash-up—the use of Google Earth as an Open Spirit data selector (Vol. 11 N° 6).

Web 2

The mash-up phenomenon is a facet of what has come to be known as Web 2—a loose grouping of technologies—RSS, Asynchronous Java Script and XML (AJAX) and other web services that are adding functionality to the humble web browser. If you want to code your own, try Pragmatic Ajax*, which will have you mashing up a Google map by page 20.


The mash-up event also raised issues of a non technical nature. Many protagonists come from the public sector and are sitting on information resources which it would be nice to see in the public domain. But such a move would upset organizations like the Ordinance Survey’s business model. A cross cutting theme is the open source community’s belief that the code itself should be ‘free’. You can think what you like about these notions, but they are hard to ignore when vast amounts of data and code are already freely available. There are some, the UK Geological Survey for one, which seem to be thinking, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them!’


Inspired by all this and intrigued by the Wood Mackenzie report (see page 1) on how a country’s tax take can cushion capex overruns, I tried my own mash-up (see graph). Here I ‘mash’ Woodmac’s NPV data** with Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2005***. I thought that there might be a relationship between companies that appear to ‘help’ oils with project overruns and their position in the TI Corruption index. I confess that the results do not really bear out the theory. But you can make a case for countries in the lower right quadrant as suffering from ‘corruption inefficiency’ as they appear to be discouraging potentially lucrative cost overruns with a high tax take. I’m sure that many good conspiracy theories have been started with less than this!

Web services?

You may be interested in the technology behind this ‘mash-up’. Web services? SOAP? .NET? Actually no. I’m afraid this was manual re-keying of data, cut and paste and much, far too much, futzing around with Microsoft Excel. But I did discover a rather neat macro**** that adds labels to Excel graphs even though that’s not a web service either!

* Gehtland et al. ISBN 0 9766940 8 5, Pragmatic Bookshelf.

** www.woodmac.com

*** www.transparency.org

**** www.support.microsoft.com/kb/213750.

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