11 sites that point to a new way of working the web

There are sites popping up all over the web that process information in new ways

New-generation websites work with information you supply, letting you manipulate, track and share data, such as your schedule or your to-do list. Others, so-called mashups, draw data from different sites and reassemble it to make something new.

They're all part of how the web is evolving beyond just a bunch of point sources for information. Here are 11 examples that show what the new web can do, from helping you organise your life to adding some personalised fun to it.

Personal assistants

GrandCentral

Ever wish you could exercise the same control over incoming phone calls as you do over email? GrandCentral — now a Google operation — gives you a new phone number and forwards incoming calls to any other number or numbers you specify.

Depending on who the call is from, you can have it ring through to your work phone, home phone, cell or all at once. You can also direct some calls right to voice mail — with different greetings for different callers — and retrieve your voice mail via any browser. Perhaps best of all, you can permanently block calls from anyone you don't want to hear from ever again.

Highrise

Highrise is an online CRM tool. Basically, it's an easy-to-use database for contacts, reminders and notes. Because it's online, you can share it across your company or team anywhere there is access to a browser.

Highrise offers a free account for up to two users that can store 250 contacts, a Max account at US$149 (NZ$188) per month for unlimited users and 50,000 contacts, and several levels in between. You can even forward emails to a drop box associated with your account, and Highrise adds it as a note on the sender's or recipient's contact page, along with any attached files.

Jott

Jott is for those times when you're away from your computer — but not from your phone — and you think of something you need to do the next day or want to be reminded of next week. You just call Jott and dictate your message. Jott translates your message to text and emails it to you or anyone else whose name and address you've registered.

If the event is in the future, you can tell Jott to send you an email or text message as a reminder. You can also use Jott to post to your blog or to Twitter, or to add tasks to your to-do lists on Remember the Milk (see below) and other such sites.

Remember the Milk

Remember the Milk is an online to-do list manager with a clean, straightforward interface that raises it above some of its competitors.

As with any desktop calendar program, you create a list of tasks and set due dates — which you can do with natural-language modifiers such as "tomorrow" or "in two weeks" — and, if you want, set them to repeat according to a regular schedule. You can add tasks by entering them in your browser or by emailing them to Remember the Milk.

Where Remember the Milk beats most desktop programs is its ability to send you a reminder via email, SMS or instant messenger. You can also share your lists with family or team members and let them add tasks too, something impossible with a desktop program outside a server environment.

Information visualisers

Pageflakes

You know those portal pages that you can customise with different information sources, such as a Yahoo start page or iGoogle? Pageflakes is the most customisable portal page you can imagine.

The "flakes" on your page can contain almost anything, from the familiar news, weather and sports sites to RSS feeds and blogs, to podcasts, to a Facebook notifier — there are more than 200,000 available flakes at the moment.

You can also load special-interest pages created by other users and publish as Pagecasts, such as the one set up for tracking the recent March Madness basketball tournament.

The fact that there's no user-controlled way to delete your account will be a deal-breaker for some, and understandably so. Hopefully, the developers will take note of what happened to Facebook and build that capability in. But if you like the idea of a personal web start page, Pageflakes is the best way to get one.

Liveplasma

Opening a Liveplasma map is like entering a solar system of related musical acts or movies. After you enter the name of a band, for example, Liveplasma generates a field of spheres with your band in the centre and other similar bands sprinkled around it.

The size of the sphere relates to the popularity of the artist, and its color conveys how similar it is to your target band. Lines connecting the spheres let you track the connections.

The sorting process is a little opaque, and the database has some holes — entering "Lily Allen" got me a map based on Woody Allen, for example. But it's an amusing way to explore similarities between artists and a visually stunning example of a new way to display information.

WeatherBonk

WeatherBonk, on the other hand, is far from visually stunning, but it'll satisfy anyone who really wants to know what's going on weatherwise.

WeatherBonk pulls data from national weather services such as Weather Underground and the National Weather Service, as well as from numerous personal weather stations run from homes and schools. It displays a screen showing the current forecast, a Google map with temperature data and streams from webcams in your target region. You can even overlay radar and cloud information and animate it. The result ain't pretty, but measured by information per square inch, it's a winner.

Maps mashups

CommunityWalk

You know those little tabs you see when you search in Google Maps for something like "pizza near 90210"? CommunityWalk lets you make your own map with tabs you set by entering addresses or by just clicking on the map.

You can also enter a label and notes for each location. I've used it to make a map of where the members of a local internet forum live and to plot the locations of a bunch of open houses I wanted to hit one weekend. You can categorise the locations and choose a different icon — basic or silly — for each category. And you can make the map Private; Shared, so that anyone you send the URL to can see it; or Public, which lists it on the site and makes it available to search engines.

Gmaps Pedometer

Want to know how far that walk you took today was? Curious about the distance of your regular morning run? Just go to this site, bring up the Google map of where you do your perambulating and start clicking to place points along your route.

The Gmaps Pedometer will calculate the total distance and, if you enter your weight, even give you an estimation of the number of calories you've burned. That's what it's for, but you can use it to measure any distance. I compared the length of the northern and southern borders of Wyoming (they're not the same, you know) by "walking" the length of them on the map.

HousingMaps

So where are all those apartments on US-based Craigslist, anyway? Go to housingmaps.com, choose a city served by Craigslist from the drop-down menu, enter a price range, number of bedrooms and other sorting criteria that Craigslist offers, and you've got a map showing where all the matching listings are located.

You also get a list of all the postings along the side of the map. Click on the icon next to any post to get a pop-up on the map showing title and address, or click on the listing title to go right to Craigslist. It's helpful if you're planning to move to a new house or apartment, but it's also a great way to pass the time dreaming about moving to a whole new city.

Just for fun

Goggles

Load the map of your hometown or someplace you just feel like visiting and fly your little Flash-animated biplane around to your heart's content. You can even strafe old workplaces or other locations you have a grudge against.

If you get lost, just dive until you crash into the ground and start over. Goggles opens with a list of 22 locations to start from, including New York and Los Angeles; Helsinki, Finland; Heraklion, Crete; and Mars and the Moon (though I couldn't get maps for the latter two.) There's also a way to set your own start location, though it's a complicated, multistep process. But if you can't find the location you want, just fly there.

Jake Widman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. He can be reached at jakewidman@gmail.com.

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