This is a second post reporting on the Semantic Web stream at the 09 Online Information Conference, with the next four points that struck me as important. In this post we look more at the processes involved in engaging with the Linked Data web. A useful UK resource for following developments is the Nodalities blog run by Talis Ltd, quoted in the earlier post. The blog and Talis are worth following: they are embedded into the developing Linked Data scene and they themselves have both thought about and experimented with these ideas and technologies, building from their previous experience in building and managing IKM applications. They also follow good web 2.0 practice in that they Slideshare their presentations. Several of the ideas in these posts come from the presentation by Ian Davies , their CTO and the one by Richard Wallis previously cited.
8. “The coolest thing that will be done with your data, will be thought of by someone else”
(CRIG tagline) Recognising the potential importance to Development of the Linked Data Web, like many promising ideas, to some extent requires a leap of faith. The enthusiasts call for data to be published according to standard formats so that other people can benefit from the data, perhaps with Yahoo’s Semantic Search platform Search Monkey . However most of the demonstrations to date focus more on showing how easy it is to mash together structured, tagged data and present it in visually informative ways rather than demonstrating the utility of the result. I can pull up in 30 seconds a visual map of the primary schools in Oxford that isn’t otherwise available on the web because a smart programmer, Stuart Harrison, has provided an application which gathers the data from a publically available database – Edubase – and prepares it for display through Google Maps. It also helps to understand the impact of web 2.0, specifically the increasing numbers of skilled developers able to mash together information from a variety of sources and present them accessibly – often visually. Ushahidi is one of the most notable Africa based groups that is delivering evidently useful visual displays of previously unlinked data, demonstrated strikingly with their recent medicine stock-out example. However, these have been programmed by hand and, in Ushahidi’s case, are built to respond to real-time input. The challenge is to find the resources and interest within the development sector that can produce some early demonstrators of potential utility with already available data.
9. RDF is the HTML of the new web… or ..the hard work has already been done
This post is far less technical than these two acronyms might suggest. The first part of the case that the growth of the linked data web is important for Development – and the assertion that the ‘Semantic Web is coming of age’ – lies in the fact that the process of making data available to be reused in other applications rests on already completed work on data descriptions and technical specifications. These are emerging as information management standards for the ‘new web’. From the work of the W3C and others the emergent networks and patterns of activity described in the previous post rest on standards for publishing data so it can be found and reused. These standards are no more complicated to use than HTML, as in a standard website. Software developers can get their technical teeth into tasty formal specifications at the base of the not-yet Semantic Web including “Resource Description Framework (RDF), a variety of data interchange formats (e.g. RDF/XML, N3, Turtle, N-Triples), and notations such as RDF Schema (RDFS) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL)’ as Wikipedia has it. Most of the rest of us need simply to learn about annotating the material, which can also be embedded into a standard webpage, using a standard called RDFa. The process is outlined in a ‘Call to Arms’ from an arm of the UK Govt.
However, even when existing data is well structured there is clearly extra work involved in the tagging and publishing process which is demanding for large well-resourced organisations let alone smaller, budget-challenged NGOs or Departments. A key corollary to all of this is that the Curating of content gains – regains – importance. This clearly is enormously significant for the libraries, archives and the information management sectors, especially if we are really starting to climb the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’ as Davies suggests.
10. Your website is your API – or, it’s less complex than it looks
(Apologies to non specialists, an Application Programming Interface enables one piece of software to link with others – and is a central component of web 2.0, amongst other things)
The most significant part of the case for the importance of the Linked Data world to Development is that the process of making data available to specialists is relatively straightforward and, as Davies says, “with a little extra effort to publish data as well as your normal HTML you can enable people to use your site to build other services and applications”. Davies has a simple mantra:
- Identify: Review the data and ‘think about what it is about – the places, people and things. Then give each of those things an identifier, a URI, just as with web pages. Assigning URIs to things enables other people to talk about and link to them’
- Describe: Use RDF or RDFa to describe those things. Including links to other things gives your description context.
- Respond: Enable your site to identify and reply to requests on the identifiers by sending the description of that thing in plain RDF, or to be more helpful, HTML versions of the descriptions also: RDFa enables both of these in a single document.
To the outside world the website then becomes, in effect, an open API, one that needs no special software to use it and one that is common to all other sites following the same standards.
11. Publishers will make less money
On one level this notion is simply another example of reintermediation driven by developments on the web but on another it is a signpost to a series of wider trends. At the surface it reflects the fact that more publically available data, the tools to manipulate it, and an increasing supply of skilled manipulators, will threaten the commercial interests of companies built on providing access to specialist resources such as scientific data and research. Other people in turn will identify new products where they can add value by combining information and feeding it rapidly to niche consumers. However, there are a number of other drivers associated with this trend, including the growing acceptance of ‘cloud computing’, with users and producers increasingly prepared to keep their data online and use online applications to manipulate the data; trends associated with web 2.0 such as mash-ups and user generated content; and the continued growth of web services. For example, new applications will make it easier for individuals – students, researchers etc – to directly interrogate data. This could include a Semantic Web Aware browser such as the Open University’s Magpie prototype which focused on how a sense-making capability could be built into a web browser. Magpie automatically associates an ontology-based semantic layer to web resources, allowing relevant services to be invoked within a standard web browser.
- “Consider the following scenario as a typical example of how Magpie can be used to make sense of a particular organization and its internal relationships. Looking at a list of publications one member of the organization published on the web, we can guess a few possible relationships hidden on such a page. For example, it shows the member’s community of practice, people s/he interacts with, topics and issues s/he specializes in, and similarly. However, what about information such as what specific projects is that member involved in? What generic interests does that member have? What about other collaborators and colleagues in addition to the paper co-authors?” A demonstration shows how this might work
In the final post we will look at possible drivers for growth in the Linked Data web including Augmented Reality applications.