You should see how people talk about this place.

It's all mashed up -- and that's exactly the point.

Though mash-ups defy a single definition, some common characteristics emerge -- they are new, often more valuable and interesting Web services created at incremental cost, effort and time by combining data from two or more existing (but formally discrete) online sources. Just as important, the new experience is seamless to the user, but the relationship between the mash-up and the supporting application programming interfaces (APIs) is readily transparent to the developer.

It's not all in the name, but the names often tell you a great deal about what is going on underneath the covers of a Web mash-up. Take wikimapia.org, which as the name suggests, mashes up wikis and mapping to tie intensely local information to localities. Fire stations, airports, community centers, libraries, bus stations, hospitals and businesses of all shapes and sizes have staked claims on wikimapia to tell their stories, their way.

Almost 2.5 million places have been voted into existence by members of the wikimapia community, a nod to the democratic self-correction that typifies online communities. Hundreds of places have been plotted and annotated in smaller communities such as Casper, Wyo., (113); Boise, Idaho, (197); Fargo, N.D., (335); and Des Moines, Iowa, (854); while larger centers now have wikimapia counts in the thousands -- Los Angeles (5,566); Washington, D.C., (7,068); Dallas (3,085); and Seattle (4,289).

Like the real places it maps and describes, wikimapia shows how and where public, private and nonprofit entities share a space, or more properly, make up a bigger place together. Make no mistake, public agencies have begun taking their place here, but there is no sense of the range or availability of public services at street level -- something for which mash-ups seem ideally suited.

For their part, governments are increasingly well positioned to exploit these opportunities. The determined shift to service-oriented architectures (SOAs) in many jurisdictions has been leading to this -- not just this, but to the full range of SOA-enabled possibilities that are not likely in the strategic IT plan.

Further, it is not hard to imagine -- and not much harder to build -- mash-ups of mash-ups that layer these combinations on top of each other. In the name of economic development, a community could start with APIs for tourism, real estate and shopping; add others specializing in crime statistics, air quality and school-performance tracking; layer in another for finding Wi-Fi access; and then finish with a view of public facilities and services.

The eternally vigilant may want to add globalincidentmap.com, a disturbing, icon-intensive mash-up of terrorist threats or incidents that gives particular attention to public infrastructure such as airports, bridges, railways and roads.

This new mashed-up sense of place adds up to a new world of collaboration -- even among those who have never met -- where government does what it is uniquely able to do, and others do the rest.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer