Earthquakes, Mashups, and Programming Components

Live Earthquake MashupOver the past week or more I’ve been having a lot of fun watching earthquakes all over the world. Not the actual earthquakes, but the reports of earthquakes. And not text reports, or overly dramatized news reports … but a timeline of earthquakes along with them being plotted on Google Maps, updated every 5 minutes. Live Earthquake Mashup is a very impressive demonstration of a “mashup“.

I found out about the site when a friend Tyler Whitaker twittered about the site … and it took me a day or two to go and see what he was talking about. Since then, I have left it up and running on my test workstation in my office … and it has offered me a whole new perspective on earthquakes! (As I was writing this, I just noticed there was an earthquake in Yellowstone National Park – not far from here – last night that was a 4.2 quake!)

There are several things that this has really brought to my attention … about earthquakes, and also programming. The truly fascinating thing that I have learned about earthquakes is that they are going on, all day long, all around the globe, but few make any news. The other thing is that they seem to cluster (duh!) around the key places on the earth where the plates are under the most pressure and shifting … and that these places are now clearly visible on the map provided! I keep thinking about what a movie of this map would look like if recorded over a long period of time. Like twitter, this mashup has raised my awareness about something that I otherwise would have never known. It has condensed an entire series of global events into a concise model that is presented to me while I work. I like that concept …

The other thing that amazed me about this mashup is just how simple it is. I do not want to minimize the effort and work of the author in any way … and I truly respect the creativity and thought that went into it. This is a powerful example of where we are going with software components, and ease of development.

When I first ran the application, of course I immediately recognized he had used Google Maps for the mapping … most everyone does. I was also aware of the USGS RSS earthduake data feeds that the US government provides. I was very impressed with the timeline that he had at the top of his application … it provided a very nice way to visualize the time series of earthquakes, and allows you to scroll easily through them, and to select earthquakes and have the map reflect their location. I did notice a copyright notice on the timeline – SIMILE. When I reloaded the application later, I saw it make a request to … huh … time to investigate …

What I found was impressive. MIT has a program called the Semantic Interoperability of Metadata and Information in unLike Environments … SIMILE. They have a whole set of components and software that they have created and are offering for free use. The Timeline is a SIMILE project, and it is a component that can be used in mashups as easily as Google Maps! (I’m slowly working my way through their site to examine all of the other components and software … pretty cool stuff …)
So the developer of the Live Earthquake Mashup took two high-level visualization components – Google Maps and the SIMILE Timeline, and knitted them together with some code to fetch and parse the RSS feeds (which might also be a available library) and created a very powerful and useful visualization of global data … and made it available to anyone who wants to see it. It was not a formidable task to create this incredible demonstration of what is possible.

Of course now this application has me thinking about other possible mashups that could be created with these same components. I know of a few, but it would also be interesting if law enforcement would release crime details as RSS feeds, or traffic accidents. What other types of data might be interesting to display on a real-time updating map like this one? I’d love to hear other ideas …

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