Moving towards the Semantic Web

Moving towards the Semantic Web

Summary: Government transparency in all its forms would appear to be very much in vogue at present, spanning everything from the Obama administration's portal and Prime Ministerial pronouncements in the UK Parliament to municipal proclamations of openness in Vancouver and compelling grass-roots demonstrations by activists and even newspapers.


Government transparency in all its forms would appear to be very much in vogue at present, spanning everything from the Obama administration's portal and Prime Ministerial pronouncements in the UK Parliament to municipal proclamations of openness in Vancouver and compelling grass-roots demonstrations by activists and even newspapers.

At the heart of many of today's initiatives lie programmes to surface Government data for use and re-use by third parties. The 'open' in 'Open Data' is, of course, a very loaded term, and I've looked before at some of the ways in which data might become 'open' whilst remaining effectively useless. Nevertheless, Governments' current enthusiasm for being seen to embrace transparency should certainly be both welcomed and encouraged, and there are real opportunities to work with Government in ensuring that today's transparency fervour continues undiminished, whether by omission or commission.

Given the complex and varied nature of the data involved, and the obvious linkages between the entities (you and I, our communities, our schools, our hospitals) described in numerous different databases, there's a clear opportunity for technologies and approaches from the Semantic Web community to play a significant role in simplifying the whole process of moving these legacy databases online.

Already interested in Open Government from previous roles, and (obviously!) committed to encouraging real-world adoption of semantic technologies, I've spent some time recently talking to a number of those involved. A number of those conversations are now available as podcasts, and I'll continue to seek out fresh examples and perspectives to share.

My most recent podcast conversation, released today, is with Professor Jim Hendler and Dr Li Ding of the Tetherless World Constellation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. The team at Rensselaer have been working with some of the US Federal Government's data sets on, and so far they've converted sixteen data sets from their original form, resulting in 2,927,398,352 freely available RDF triples and a number of demonstration applications.

Other conversations already released in the series include;

  • David Eaves, talking about Vancouver's commitment to Open Data
  • John Sheridan, Head of e-Services at the UK Government's Office of Public Sector Information, talking about his Department's efforts to get Government data online
  • Mark Birbeck, talking about work with the UK Government's Central Office of Information to embed lightweight RDFa into workflows and web pages

Each offers an example of ways in which 'open data' contributes to Government transparency, or to increasing the value of the massive sunk investment in collecting, managing and curating the data upon which Governments depend. The Semantic Web's notion of Linked Data (whether actually in RDF or not! :-) ) offers a means to increase the utility of the data we have, without a massive programme of reengineering the systems used to manage it. The examples we see today, and the work of the individuals and teams with whom I have been speaking, will teach us a lot about how to make this work at Government scale.

Topics: Government US, Browser, Government, Software Development

Paul Miller

About Paul Miller

Paul Miller provides consultancy and analysis services at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web.

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  • Accessibility of Data

    Paul thank you for the post. You are correct that a great amount of government data is useless. Semantic Web technologies have great potential to add value to this data.

    I would add that more data needs to be made available before we can actually start see real success. I personally feel that this is one of the Gov 2.0 fails at the federal level, particularly on the part of the Congress and the White House. This country has spent trillions on stimulus spending on various fronts. If government data is important, then where is the stimulus for state and local data. State and local government has no money to spend or at least no desire to spend money on new IT projects. The amount of latent data at the state and local level is huge and valuable. Imagine an expanded that combines data regarding education funding, business registry data, census data, and public works spending data. The policy making value is incredible. Of course, all of this data is open (legally), but the key is accessibility. Much of government data is practically inaccessible to the public. Federal spending could advance the ball at the state and local level.

    Thanks, Brian
    • Moving from encouragement to mandate ?


      I definitely agree that we need to see more data. One of the points
      that Jim made during the recording was that agencies are currently
      being 'encouraged' to move their data to, rather than
      mandated to do so. Some form of Executive Order would presumably
      be required at a Federal level, and that becomes all the more likely if
      RPI, Sunlight and others are able to show what can be [i]done[/i] with
      the data once it's available.

      Local initiatives in cities like Washington and Vancouver also show
      what can be achieved at the local level, and my chat with David Eaves
      a week or so ago suggested that Vancouver hopes and expects to
      [i]save[/i] money by opening up. It will be interesting to see how true
      that is, and whether an injection of cash is needed alongside the
      injection of will in getting things moving...

  • RE: Moving towards the Semantic Web

    Indeed the point is "how to make this work at Government scale" ?
    Data visualisation certainly helps. In fact this is the key in explaining what open data is all about. These are the flowers in TBL ted presentation. People don't care about boxes, they want pretty flowers.
    • Pretty flowers !

      Telling a compelling story is certainly part of what needs to happen, and I
      agree that Tim's TED talk is a huge leap forward from some of the drier
      presentations used to 'sell' Linked Data in the past. We've got a long way
      still to go, though, and we need tangible arguments about 'value' to sit
      alongside the pretty pictures and the bold visions.
  • RE: Moving towards the Semantic Web

    I have developed a system which is a semantic model
    external to the data. This allows the user to create
    their own version of related terms while being computer
  • RE: Moving towards the Semantic Web a JISC funded linked data service using Semantic Web standards to provide an integration point for UK governmental sourced information.
    • OpenPSI project

      Forgot to mention OpenPSI is a collaboration between the University of Southampton and the UK government, lead by OPSI at the National Archive
  • semantics...

    Check out and the company behind it, Palantir Technologies,
  • RE: Moving towards the Semantic Web

    Good, Informative Post, Thanks for this wonderful post and hoping to post more of this, so I'll put this one on my bookmark list of" .

    Have Great Day.