Thursday, July 16, 2009

Offbeat tools? Portals and Mashups are not!

At least that's what CIOs in Singapore think. According to a recent survey, 59% of the responding CIOs were increasing their investments in building applications based on portals and mashups. They are also researching heavily on cloud and SaaS, which is quite obvious due to the buzz in that space of late. This trend is interesting because the challenge for today's CIOs is two fold. Reduce costs while helping their organizations grow at the same time.

Mashups enable this by allowing re-use across the board. Why spend on building new applications from scratch when most of the required data is already available within the existing applications? If you have a SOA in place, things become much easier. But this isn't a must either. A case study I often bring up is the US Federal IT Dashboard. Although it seemed to have appeared overnight, this was an initiative started way back when Vivek Kundra was the CTO for the DC government. If you look at his work from around 2008 onwards, you'll see a nice pattern to incrementally build a successful solution using these Web 2.0 technologies.
  1. Expose re-usable data as much as possible. Restrict access to sensitive data feeds. But do use a catalogue to systematically organize these feeds, so that potential consumers can easily find their way around. Make sure that the data is exposed in a standard compliant, easily consumable format (Web Services, RSS, KML, etc.). [See the DC government's data catalogue]
  2. Once the catalogue is in place, encourage people to mash up the data and come up with interesting new applications. The approach you take depends on your target audience. In an enterprise setting, you should be evaluating various mashup tools available at this point. For the DC government, whose audience is the citizens, an open competition seem to have proved the best alternative. They launched a contest for mashuppers with prizes for winners. [See Apps for Democracy. The entries are closed for 2009. The second year of its existence]
  3. These mashups themselves can be the sole presentation layer for certain applications. But when the demands for presenting a unified, bird's-eye view become stronger, dashboards (portals) come into play. The result of this final step is the one most talked about today, The Federal IT Dashboard. Any citizen from the President downwards can today track government spending. Just point n' click.

That's the story so far. But I feel that step 3 above can use some improvements. What if the dashboard content itself can be contributed by users? What if it was like say, iGoogle? You provide the Data Catalogue and host the Dashboard infrastructure and ask the people to come up with interesting Gadgets that harvest and display data. This will naturally lead to a Gadget Catalogue, a collection of interesting Gadgets any user can pick and choose to create his own Dashboard view. Contributions may be encouraged by a competition similar to Apps for Democracy.

A dashboard is most valuable when it can be customized by the user. Because people have different priorities and with these, the view they expect changes dramatically. If one can register, log in and change the default dashboard by adding gadgets from a catalogue and arranging them according to preference, that would be a great user experience.