Semantic Web in the news

Submitted by timbl on Thu, 2008-03-27 16:43. ::

Well, the Semantic Web has been in the news a bit recently.

There was the buzz about Twine, a "Semantic Web company", getting another round of funding. Then, Yahoo announced that it will pick up Semantic Web information from the Web, and use it to enhance search. And now the Times online mis-states that I think "Google could be superseded". Sigh. In an otherwise useful discussion largely about what the Semantic Web is and how it will affect people, a misunderstanding which ended up being the title of the blog. In fact, the conversation as I recall started with a question whether, if search engines were the killer app for the familiar Web of documents, what will be the killer app for the Semantic Web.

Text search engines are of course good for searching the text in documents, but the Semantic Web isn't text documents, it is data. It isn't obvious what the killer apps will be - there are many contenders. We know that the sort of query you do on data is different: the SPARQL standard defines a query protocol which allows application builders to query remote data stores. So that is one sort of query on data which is different from text search.

One thing to always remember is that the Web of the future will have BOTH documents and data. The Semantic Web will not supersede the current Web. They will coexist. The techniques for searching and surfing the different aspects will be different but will connect. Text search engines don't have to go out of fashion.

The "Google will be superseded" headline is an unfortunate misunderstanding. I didn't say it. (We have, by the way, asked it to be fixed. One can, after all, update a blog to fix errors, and this should be appropriate. Ian Jacobs wrote an email, left voice mail, and tried to post a reply to the blog, but the reply did not appear on the blog - moderated out? So we tried.)

Now of course, as the name of The Times was once associated with a creditable and independent newspaper :-), the headline was picked up and elaborated on by various well-meaning bloggers. So the blogosphere, which one might hope to be the great safety net under the conventional press, in this case just amplified the error.

I note that here the blogosphere was misled by an online version of a conventional organ. There are many who worry about the inverse, that decent material from established sources will be drowned beneath a tide of low-quality information from less creditable sources.

The Media Standards Trust is a group which has been working with the Web Science Research Initiative (I'm a director of WSRI) to develop ways of encoding the standards of reporting a piece of information purports to meet: "This is an eye-witness report"; or "This photo has not been massaged apart from: cropping"; or "The author of the report has no commercial connection with any products described"; and so on. Like creative commons, which lets you mark your work with a licence, the project involves representing social dimensions of information. And it is another Semantic Web application.

In all this Semantic Web news, though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The benefit of the Semantic Web is that data may be re-used in ways unexpected by the original publisher. That is the value added. So when a Semantic Web start-up either feeds data to others who reuse it in interesting ways, or itself uses data produced by others, then we start to see the value of each bit increased through the network effect.

So if you are a VC funder or a journalist and some project is being sold to you as a Semantic Web project, ask how it gets extra re-use of data, by people who would not normally have access to it, or in ways for which it was not originally designed. Does it use standards? Is it available in RDF? Is there a SPARQL server?

A great example of Semantic Web data which works this way is Linked Data. There is growing mass of interlinked public data much of it promoted by the Linked Open Data project. There is an upcoming Linked Data workshop on this at the WWW 2008 Conference in April in Beijing, and in June 17-18 in New York at the Linked Data Planet Conference. Linked data comes alive when you explore it with a generic data browser like the Tabulator. It also comes alive when you make mashups out of it. (See Playing with Linked Data, Jamendo, Geonames, Slashfacet and Songbird ; Using Wikipedia as a database). It should be easier to make those mashups by just pulling RDF (maybe using RDFa or GRDDL) or using SPARQL, rather than having to learn a new set of APIs for each site and each application area.

I think there is an important "double bus" architecture here, in which there are separate markets for the raw data and for the mashed up data. Data publishers (e.g., government departments) just produce raw data now, and consumer-facing sites (e.g., soccer sites) mash up data from many sources. I might talk about this a bit at WWW 2008.

So in scanning new Semantic Web news, I'll be looking out for re-use of data. The momentum around Linked Open Data is great and exciting -- let us also make sure we make good use of the data.