Semantic Mash-Ups: Uncle Sam in a Whole New Light

by Michael Mullaney on May 25, 2010

The stature of Rensselaer as a national locus and leader in the emerging field of Web science research is quickly crystallizing. We’ve known it to be the case for a while, and the rest of the country is finally catching on.

Faculty and students from the Institute’s Tetherless World Constellation have been hard at work backing up this reputation. Over the past eight months, the group has created more than 40 “mash-ups” of U.S. government data. These mash-ups connect previously unconnected data sets, taken from the year-old site, and combine them into something new and interesting.

The video sbove, created by doctoral student Dominic DiFranzo, is an excellent example. Dominic mashed up raw data on ozone and visibility readings in the United States with separate geographical data on where the readings were taken. This had not been done before, as the two data sets were released on separate Web sites using differing technologies. The result is a mash-up that plots this combined information in a way that’s interactive (i.e. clickable, zoomable, scrollable), user-friendly (it leverages the ubiquitous Google Maps platform), and intuitive. Check out this demo of the mash-up.

Another mash-up demo uses different data sets on Supreme Court decisions to visualize the how different justices veered more conservative or progressive on different issues (e.g. gun control, crime) over the years. Other demos include mashing up the White House visitor list with information from Wikipedia and Google, mashing up U.S. and British information on aid to foreign nations, and a mashed-up timeline of government agency budgets and New York Times reports on those agencies.

The full list of mash-up demos is at

Dominic actually gave a demo of his mash-up last Friday at the event in Washington D.C. commemorating the one-year anniversary of At the event, U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra applauded RPI’s leadership role in using the Web to promote government transparency. At the same event, Kundra named RPI Professor James Hendler an “Internet Web Expert” who will advise To boot, RPI last month launched the nation’s first undergraduate degree program in Web Science. This is a place where things are happening.

The best part of the story, in my mind, is that Hendler and the RPI team are doing all of this with an open-source mind set. While the mash-up demos are very interesting, the Tetherless team’s ultimate goal is to create a platform for anyone to quickly and easily pull data sets together and create their own mash-ups. They’re endeavoring to design a simple, powerful interface for anyone to pull data sets from and weave them together in a meaningful way.

Grist for the mill: check out this Wired story on the one-year anniversary of; a good overview of the Tetherless World Constellation; and a nice Alumni Magazine story on Web science and the work of the Tetherless folks.