Similar to the music world where a new song can be created from bits and pieces of two or more different songs, mashups in the technology world follow the same basic structure. Taking disparate data from divergent sources and/or applications, a mashup is an amalgamation of this information, which, when put together, is a unique application tailored to the user/designer’s specifications. While most carriers and agents might not be fully cognizant of them, mashups, when crafted properly, can improve workflow, disseminate knowledge, improve customer service and marketing, save time and money and—potentially—permanently change the shape of the insurance IT landscape.

The term mashup is tricky—meaning many different things to many different people. According to G. Oliver Young, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. “A mashup is a way to combine data and applications in disparate applications into something that is more valuable than the sum of its parts,” he says. “So, in the case of applications, it’s combining two separate applications into one that becomes more valuable than the two separate applications. In the case of data, it’s combining two or more data sets into one data set that is more valuable to the user.”

Mashups can be very simple, such as Web-based applications capable of helping map a route from the home page of a new restaurant; or they can be incredibly complex systems, such as platforms where carriers can merge whole applications and data sources to create new applications.

Many insurers may unwittingly already use mashups of some sort. Some mashup applications leverage a company’s pre-established service-oriented architecture (SOA), which, if done properly, will facilitate ease in breaking up the enterprise into reusable data sources. This is important — the mashup can aggregate information critical for the insurer’s employees, and helps foster the spread of knowledge thought the company, which stands to benefit all lines of business.

“In many ways, think of mashups as that last mile of a service-oriented architecture,” Young says. “Now that you’ve got all these services enabled, what do you do with them? One of the great answers is with a mashup server, you can mix and match these services—now you can make an application or a dashboard or whatever it happens to be, and now you can make something that, as an end user, is completely customized to your needs.”

In contrast, there also are basic, customer-facing mashups. Many just being simple, graphical items hosted on an insurer’s Web site, mashups can be invaluable to attracting new customers and retaining old ones, which, in this new age of consumerism, provides added business value.

AT FIRST MASH

Mashups have been around for some time in different forms, surfacing around the days of Web 1.0, according to Michael Loke, senior management analyst with BearingPoint Inc., Melbourne, Australia. But for insurers, businesses and other customer-facing purposes, it wasn’t until last year when they began to garner mainstream attention.

“Some of the earliest mashups were consumer-oriented, like Housingmaps.com, which was the first mainstream mashup application that grabbed peoples’ attention, but in the last year or so businesses have really started to look at mashups as something that can actually provide business value,” Young says.

At a recent conference, an analyst from Boston-based Celent LLC reported that according to a number of CIOs polled throughout the insurance industry, utilization of mashups is not widespread. Based on a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 meaning “no use of mashups,” and 5 being defined as “delivering good value,” the average for large P&C carriers was 0.5. CIOs from large life and health carriers ranked 2, while mid-sized P&C companies ranked 1. According to Celent, this means that while there’s definite interest among carriers in mashup technology, they’re currently watching and monitoring the situation, but in no rush to implement.

David Fitzgerald, CIO and executive VP with Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based CarInsurance.com, may be one of the exceptions. He first gained awareness of mashups about a year and a half ago, and began implementing them immediately. A virtual insurance marketplace, CarInsurance.com enables consumers to shop online, receive quotes from various insurers and, in some states, immediately purchase a policy.

“From a Web perspective, we wanted to push our site to incorporate more Web 2.0 elements—implementing AJAX and a more aggressive Web site design that is more rich for the client,” Fitzgerald says. “Looking at mashups from that perspective, one of the simple implementations is our Google Maps mashup, which allows users to see differences by states.”

Fitzgerald uses mashups of various kinds throughout his organization. His Web site offers customers the ability to receive a quote within six to seven minutes, but in order to do so, has to aggregate information from five to 10 different insurers, each of whom are interfaced directly to the site through XML. The process continues this way all the way through to the purchase of the policy.

Another Web-based insurer, San Francisco-based Esurance Inc., has been utilizing mashups of some sort since the company’s inception in 1999. Not having to deal with the same legacy system issues as most other insurers, Esurance was able to integrate mashup applications into its Web site early on, but in the past year committed to incorporating many more.

“I think an additional commitment was made a year ago when we moved to Microsoft’s .Net technology for our quote and purchase process,” says Lisa Ward, director of customer experience, Esurance. “So with that underpinning for the platform, we moved to a .Net platform. This set the foundation for even more flexible types of integration throughout our quote and purchase process.”

Currently, Esurance has a number of mashup applications working behind its Web site, and several back office operations that interface with Google, Yahoo! and, soon, MSN. The IT department developed mashups so the company’s internal systems can talk to each other. In addition, the company also is starting to use mashups more for its internal quoting systems.

“There used to be more aggregation on the servers,” says Arun Ganesan, director of business intelligence, Esurance. “Now we’re moving toward a Web service technology where we take data from all multiple internal and external sources and aggregate it on the front end, then attach quotes and present that to the users.”

Esurance has another mashup-enabled feature set to roll out in a couple of months that benefits both their claims people as well as their service providers and their customers.

“Another project on the horizon is in our claims area,” Ward says. “Mashups allow us to bring more information to our claimants who want to both file claims online as well as check the status of their claims online. We’ll be introducing features that even enable them to schedule an inspection, and that’s only going to be possible by utilizing mashups on the back end to go out to our independent appraisers and find out when their appointments are available so that the consumer can—in real-time—schedule an appointment to drop their car off, and have it be a valid appointment.”

WHAT CAN MASH DO FOR ME?

At first glace, mashups may seem like just another step in the evolution of the Internet and, technically, that’s true, but there are benefits to being an early adopter.

“The biggest benefit is getting lots of disparate information into one place,” Young says. For example, Web mashups can benefit the underwriting process.

“A mashup will allow you to to take all those different data sources and put them in one place right from the start, so instead of jumping through several different applications, or jumping to many different Web pages, a well-crafted mashup will put all that information right there at the underwriter’s fingertips,” Young explains. “The [underwriter] says: ‘Okay this is the person I’m looking for,’ or ‘This is the company I’m looking at; here is their information; give me everything you know about them,’ [the mashup] will pull it out of whatever data sources are used to get a feel for who this person is, or what this company does, and it will all come back to you immediately. 


“That timesaver right there—the fact that you’ve got a complete view, you’re sure you haven’t missed anything along the way—is tremendously valuable, its efficient and, with Web 2.0 tools in general—especially with mashups, the value is worker efficiency and making sure that you’ve got all the right content right there for the person who’s making that decision,” continues Young.

Another benefit to mashups is that they facilitate the dissemination of knowledge across the enterprise.

“Having a manageable platform allows all knowledge workers in the firm to selectively mashup the applications that are useful to them,” Loke says. “For example, an insurance company can easily have a mashup application that looks at business intelligence information, such as sales, customer or claims data, and the customer service person can potentially create an RSS feed to keep themselves aware of company-wide announcements that can be mashed up onto a single platform. This ability and flexibility to allow these knowledge workers to disseminate information is critical.”

Additionally, simply streamlining processes can make all the difference in the world. Companies whose employees don’t need to take extra steps to complete a routine task, which wastes time, money and resources, can reap dividends in the long term.

“[Mashups] will help streamline activities,” says Tim Zonca, director, Serena Software Inc., San Mateo, Calif. “Our customers who have been working with mashups for, in some cases, years, report that they’ve been able to save a lot of money, or get materials out a lot faster. So, in essence, they save time by coordinating these common and everyday business activities.”

HOW TO GET MASHED UP

The next logical question many carriers ask is how to get started. While mashups are still relatively new, there are a number of mashup platform providers out there today that are ready to assist with implementation.

Companies such as Chevy Chase, Md.-based JackBe Corp., Cary, N.C.-based StrikeIron Inc., Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. and Serena Software are among the more popular companies providing mashup solutions and services to enterprises. Serena Software, for example, focuses on business mashups and application lifecycle management. Serena offers mashups in two types—a mashup composer, which is free and downloadable from its Web site, and its mashup server.

“The mashup composer allows someone in IT—a business analyst or someone in the lines of business who’s tech savvy—to put together a wiki or a blog or something like that,” explains Zonca. “They don’t have to be a coder — the mashup composer allows them to quickly build and deploy mashups.”

Once an insurer has downloaded the mashup composer and created a mashup, the carrier needs to purchase the mashup server to begin to use the new application.

“Once the mashers are done building the mashup, they need to deploy it somewhere. The mashup server controls a lot of the governance—not only running the mashups, but also monitoring the mashups themselves, so we know which version of the mashups are out there.”

Currently, Serena charges about $10,000 to $15,000 for a typical deployment of a mashup server, with more complex services and hardware costing more.

Mashup servers can be installed in-house. Later this year, Serena will offer companies the ability to utilize, for a monthly fee, their server on-demand.

Forrester’s Young says that, through his research, he’s found that vendors have a hard time naming a price because most mashups are still in the experimentation phase and the vendors themselves are still experimenting.

Depending on the complexity of the mashup platform, they cost, as a benchmark, about $150,000 to $200,000 for a heavyweight mashup application, but the basic applications will be much cheaper, Young says. He also remarks that prices vary widely from vendor to vendor.

MASHING THE IT LANDSCAPE

Another benefit to mashups is its non-reliance on traditional IT personnel for design, implementation, maintenance and support. Many times an employee or company is at the mercy of its IT department’s typically overworked schedule for projects and, often, these projects may fall by the wayside because there’s never time to complete them, or its buried too deep in the queue, experts say. Mashups change this scenario.

Serena Software’s Zonca finds this to be a common scenario with his clients. “We’ve talked with our customers over the last few years, and they say that for every project that IT is working on, there are about 10 that go unaddressed. Some of them don’t even get brought to IT’s attention because the business knows IT’s never going to get to these. So, business mashups allow the lines of business to solve their own problems by creating mashups that coordinate common daily activities. Therefore, they don’t have to go through a long IT process to build these simple applications.”

Carinsurance.com’s David Fitzgerald agrees, believing mashups — with the power to enable the everyday employees to help themselves — will change the face of IT throughout the insurance industry. Mashups are going to change the way IT creates new applications, he says. “IT is no longer going to be the stumbling block—they’re no longer going to be the one who has to provision the resources to make a new application, or to make a new data source. Instead, they’re going to become enablers and evolve into a position where they create services within the business, and business analysts and end-line business users will do the legwork themselves. They’ll be able to create their own applications and, a lot of the smaller projects sitting at the bottom of IT’s task list—the things that can never seem to get enough support or get enough force behind them to get up and running will, eventually, once companies have a mashup platform, be dealt with through mashups. It’s really going to enable the business to help itself in a way that they just can’t today.”

MASH DISTILLED

In the end, Young says, mashups solve one of insurers’ oldest problems: how to take content and business processes from different applications and bring them together harmoniously.

In the past, the solution was for someone to aggregate this information. But now, mashup platforms allow individual users to create their own applications, unique to their task, which quickly and easily puts all that information in front of them.

“If my company has a good infrastructure in place, all I’ll have to do is jump into our mashup application and there will be lots of different data sources and business processes for me to mash up,” he explains. “I’ll put them together in a simple composer application, I’ll hit ‘execute’ and start using it. Anybody should be able to go in and create their own mashup.”

Glossary of Mashup Terms


Given that mashups are new to the insurance industry, the following terms are important to know and understand.

* Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX): A group of interrelated Web development techniques used for creating interactive Web applications that is used to increase a Web page’s interactivity, speed, functionality and usability.

* Atom: Applies to a pair of related standards—The Atom Syndication Format is an XML language used for Web feeds, while the Atom Publishing Protocol is a simple HTTP-based protocol for creating and updating Web resources.

* JavaScript Object Notation (JSON): A lightweight, human-readable, text-based computer data interchange format that represents simple data structures and associative arrays.

* Representational State Transfer (REST): A style of software architecture for distributed hypermedia systems such as the World Wide Web.

* Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP): A protocol for exchanging XML-based messages over computer networks normally using HTTP/HTTPS. SOAP forms the foundation layer of the Web services protocol stack by providing a basic messaging framework upon which abstract layers can be built.

Designing a Mashup

According to Tim Zonca, a director with Serena Systems Inc., San Mateo, Calif., there are four key points to designing a mashup: workflow, usability, security and customized data. 

The first step is to lay out the set of activities, or the workflow, that they want their mashup to go through. Because of the complexity of workflow itself — coordinating people across different departments and, potentially, tying into different systems, the mashup workflow design not only mashes the people and the processes, but also data from different systems.

Usability is the next step. Since mashup builders can’t afford to train new users every time a new mashup is built, they have the ability to customize the end-user experience for the people using the mashup.

“For example, if you’re hitting a mashup from your intranet, you can make it look like your intranet so that you dictate what the people see — so it doesn’t look different,” Zonca says. “They don’t necessarily know they’re working in a different application.”

The third step is security. The mashup designer defines who can see what, and who is allowed to do what at each step along the way.

The final step is the customization of data. “As I’m passing information from one group to another—sharing it with one application or across other applications — I get to customize the data in such a way so I can make sure I’m passing and showing people information using our terminology,” Zonca says.

Simple Mashups for Everyone


Given the rise of Web 2.0 and the abundance of blogs, wikis and general expansion of enhanced Web services and functionality, there are a number of basic mashups out there for everyone to use on a daily basis—many of which carriers probably use unwittingly.

Google and Yahoo! are two of the most popular facilitators of simple, Web-based mashups. Both iGoogle and My Yahoo! enable users to customize a home page on their Web browsers to display all sorts of different information—from television listings to e-mail notifications to sports scores to weather information, games and more.

“Mashups can be as simple as a start page,” says G. Oliver Young, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. “Web pages such as Netvibes (www.netvibes.com) or iGoogle or MyYahoo! — where they simply take content from places such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Weather.com or ESPN, and stick them on the same page together—in the past, would have required a user to go to multiple Web sites and navigate around. Now, these sites simply put content on that same page so that they’re presented together, matching it all on the same screen for you, is a kind of mashup. It’s very simplistic.”

Google Maps mashups are one of the most commonly used. Sites such as Craigslist.org use Google Maps to plot apartment listings, and even insurers can create their own mashups to pinpoint the location of agents, clients, or disasters, get directions or plot other information utilizing Google’s mapping application.

Social networking sites also are an example of the rise of mashup applications. The popular Facebook offers an ever-growing number of different mashups for users, incorporating them all into the standard user experience. Facebook allows for the posting and tagging of photos to be shared with other users, a list of news and updates from friends in real-time based on profile updates, and the ability to send e-mail and other types of messaging, among others. All this is shown on a single page without ever revealing to the user that it includes multiple, complex applications.

“When you log into Facebook, you actually see a single canvas, or a single user experience, where you get different applications all onto a single page,” explains Michael Loke, senior management analyst with BearingPoint Inc., Melbourne, Australia. “But, in reality, all these applications are actually residing in multiple servers hosted around the world. The ability to compose and extract information from these servers constitutes a mashup.”

In addition to sites offering simple mashups for users, there are now sites available for people to create their own mashup applications, including Openkapow (www.openkapow.com) or Yahoo!’s Pipes (www.pipes.yahoo.com). Pipes, for example, is a composition tool that enables users to aggregate, manipulate and mash up various Web feeds and content to publish on a single Web page. With a little research and effort, users can create their own mashups in a matter of minutes. The site also offers instructions on how to create your own pipe, a message board and enables users to share their mashups.

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