Sir Tim Berners-Lee: Semantic Web is open for business

Sir Tim Berners-Lee: Semantic Web is open for business

Summary: Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee says that Semantic Web building blocks are in place. He also questions the attitude to data ownership of social networking companies in an interview recorded earlier this month.

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, photographed by Rob Styles during his WWW2007 keynoteEarlier this month I had the great pleasure to spend time talking with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and now Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in Cambridge, MA.

Our wide-ranging dig into the past, present and future of the Semantic Web was recorded for one of the regular Talking with Talis podcasts, and now appears here as the first of a new podcast series for ZDNet; Talking Semantics.

In this post, I'd like to draw out some aspects of the conversation that I found most interesting. Have a listen for yourself, draw your own conclusions, and please do share them in TalkBack.

First, the good news. With the release of the SPARQL specifications, Tim is clear that the core pieces are in place for developers to build robust Semantic Web applications;

"I think... we've got all the pieces to be able to go ahead and do pretty much everything... [Y]ou should be able to implement a huge amount of the dream, we should be able to get huge benefits from interoperability using what we've got. So, people are realizing it's time to just go do it."

Asked about an important article in Scientific American from 2001, Berners-Lee was quick to move past the grand vision outlined there, and to stress the importance of simple yet empowering steps;

"In fact, the gain from the Semantic Web comes much before that. So maybe we should have written about enterprise and intra-enterprise data integration and scientific data integration. So, I think, data integration is the name of the game. That's happening, it's showing benefits. Public data as well; public data is happening and it is providing the fodder for all kinds of mashups.

What we should realize is that the return on investment will come much earlier when we just have got this interoperable data that we can query over."

We spent some time (almost 15 minutes, from about 20 minutes in, for those listening along) talking about the ways in which data holders will gain benefits from their data being visible to a new generation of Semantic Web applications;

"There's an awful lot of data out there. And I think, one of the huge misunderstandings about the Semantic Web is, 'oh, the Semantic Web is going to involve us all going to our HTML pages and marking them up to put semantics in them.' Now, there's an important thread there, but to my mind, it's actually a very minor part of it. Because I'm not going to hold my breath while other people put semantics in by hand... So, where is the data going to come from? It's already there. It's in databases..."

The W3C-supported Linked Data Project is one compelling example of a community effort to take data and make it more visible to the rest of the Semantic Web. Projects such as DBpedia, MusicBrainz and Revyu.com are enriching existing content, and increasingly providing tools with which new content can be created. As Tim notes;

"So, some data is scraped from HTML pages, some of it is pulled out of databases, some of it comes from projects which have been in XML. So, things come in many different ways. And once they're exported, as you browse around the RDF graph, as you write mash-ups to reuse that data, you really don't have to be aware of how it was produced."

Richard Cyganiak maintains an evolving picture of the participants in this project, a snapshot of which is reproduced here.

The Linking Open Data dataset cloud

Impressive as these activities are, if we are to see a similar growth in the availability of data from less philanthropic sources, there is a clear need for greater clarity with respect to the 'proper' use and reuse of data. In a similar manner to that attempted for 'creative works' by Creative Commons, recent activity around the Open Data Commons offers useful pointers as to the way forward here, and I may delve further into that area in a future post.

Before moving off the topic, Tim flagged two events over the next few months as interesting to those looking to make data available to the Semantic Web. First the Linked Open Data Workshop at this year's World Wide Web conference in Beijing in April, and second Linked Data Planet in New York in June. For more on Linked Data, see Tom Heath's recent article looking back at one year of activity on the project.

Towards the end of our conversation, we built upon earlier discussion of shared and open data by turning to those sites receiving such criticism for their rather different perspective at the moment, the social networks. Asked,

"Do you think developers of applications like, say, Facebook and LinkedIn and the rest, are ready to embrace the Semantic Web, or do you think they think they can do it themselves?"

Tim responded with;

"It is a very grown-up thing to realize that you are not the only social networking site... otherwise it is like a website which doesn't have any links out. In the Semantic Web similarly, if you don't have any links out, well, that's boring.

In fact, a lot of the value of many websites is the links out."

Whilst quick to recognise that sites such as LiveJournal support the FOAF specification, there was a clear distinction drawn between those few examples and the majority;

"Now if you look at the social networking sites which, if you like, are traditional Web 2.0 social networking sites, they hoard this data. The business model appears to be, 'We get the users to give us data and we reuse it to our benefit. We get the extra value.'"

...

"Web 2.0 is a stovepipe system. It's a set of stovepipes where each site has got its data and it's not sharing it. What people are sometimes calling a Web 3.0 vision where you've got lots of different data out there on the Web and you've got lots of different applications, but they're independent. A given application can use different data. An application can run on a desktop or in my browser, it's my agent. It can access all the data, which I can use and everything's much more seamless and much more powerful because you get this integration. The same application has access to data from all over the place."

Recent excitement around the Data Portability movement and the high profile adherents to their mission is certainly encouraging, although fellow ZDNet blogger Dennis Howlett has been amongst those expressing some scepticism as to their motivation. I guess only time will tell whether that particular movement will succeed.

Those who doubt the commitment of current players can, perhaps, be reassured by simply remembering the speed with which the current market leaders grew. Consider, too, Tim's,

"People can indeed choose not to go to that site [if it does not open access to their data]"

In other words, in a market such as the one in which we operate, there is always scope for new entrants with new values and new business models. If users are compelled by the new proposition they can - and will - move with remarkable rapidity. The big question, though, has to be... do they care enough?

We talked for a fascinating hour during which we ranged from past to future, from technology to policy. We covered specifications such as RDF and SPARQL, and we talked about the pressing need for more accessible texts to explain the Semantic Web to mainstream business. We remembered that Tim's original web client was both editor and browser, and postulated on how things might have evolved differently if today's Read/Write Web of blogs and wikis had been an integral part of the way everyone was introduced to thinking about the Web all those years ago.

There is much still to do, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee is clearly enthused by the journey that lies ahead. Listening to him, it's hard not to agree.

Show notes are available on Nodalities for this podcast. A transcript is also available.

Disclosure: Work on the Open Data Commons is supported by my employer, Talis.

Photograph of Sir Tim Berners-Lee taken by my colleague Rob Styles, during Tim's keynote presentation at the WWW2007 Conference in Banff, Canada. Used with permission.

Richard Cyganiak's Linking Open Data dataset cloud is licensed with a Creative Commons license (Attribution Sharealike), and reproduced here within the terms of that license.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Apps, Browser

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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12 comments
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  • Inventor of the WWW?

    Tim "...inventor of the World Wide Web..."

    Not really, in simple terms all Tim did was come up with the DNS system, the rest already existed and there were already other schemes in place which may well have been better in some ways.

    H G Wells is the first known inventor of the overall concept.

    In his "idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia, Wells foresaw a time when every student would have access to a network that connected the corners of the globe serving as a memory for mankind. Wells said this information would be summoned to any properly prepared spot and be thrown upon the screen so that the student may study it in every detail."

    Above quote from: Internet-Public-Library.org
    wwwsupport
    • DNS?

      Berners-Lee didn't come up with DNS. DNS was developed long before there was a World Wide Web.

      And he is credited with creating the World Wide Web. His work at CERN led to HTML and the Web browser. Before that we were using text-based browsers and Unix-like commands to navigate the Internet.
      ny_sal
    • Sir Tim Berners-Lee & the WWW

      Sorry guys but I can't let you get away with trying to downgrade Sir Tim's achievement! Without him there there would be no "web" as we know it but only the disparate text-based internet sites that existed before, and had to be individually "navigated" - here is the real story:

      http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/berners-lee.html

      It's pretty clear I think!

      Nigel
      nshindler
  • It sounds evil, to me.

    It sounds evil, to me.

    The trouble is that so many don't have a proper
    respect for individual privacy and the difference
    between information pried from private individuals for
    a specific purpose for a specific time, and "public
    records" about what government functionaries are
    doing.
    Professor8
    • Evil

      Stuggy - thanks for the comment. 'Evil' ? Surely it's a tool and, as a tool, it can be
      used in a whole range of ways that some might consider either 'good' or 'evil' ?

      Aren't proper protections for personal data the domain of laws and social
      pressure/norms, rather than an excuse or reason not to move forward with any of
      this.

      And even with private and protected data, Semantic Web ideas and techniques have
      much to offer in streamlining processes inside the data-holding organisation
      without in any way meaning that the data 'has' to be exposed to the open web.
      PaulMiller
  • RE: Sir Tim Berners-Lee: Semantic Web is open for business

    To Say Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web is a gross over statement of his true accomplishments and is akin to saying Al Gore invented the internet. What Tim did while at CERN was, without a doubt, significant to the overall addoption of the web as a means of communicating he did not invent it.
    dt_luke@...
    • Al Gore

      Did anyone [i]seriously[/i] suggest Al Gore invented the Internet? :-)
      PaulMiller
      • Invent is not the same as Create

        Dont be an Internet Sheep. Its an urban myth that Al Gore claimed to have invented Internet. Check Wikipedia, check Snopes. What he DID do was help create the Internet in the US (create is not the same as invent). As a senator he authored and co-authored many of the most important bills for creating the internet backbone and opening it to private users. His geek stance before geeks were popular did not help him but it vastly helped us.

        Gandalf Parker
        GP1628
    • Say Whaaat?!?

      You have got to be f@#kin' kidding!

      That you could use the name of a brilliant mind such as Berners-Lee in the same sentence as the name Al Gore is nothing short of despicable.

      Heck! Using Gore's name in the "same forum" is an insult enough to Berners-Lee - let alone all the other brilliant IS pioneers that have been spoken of time and again on ZDNet over the years.

      As for Gore, well ... what the hell is there to say? His *greatest* achievement would have to be in the testing and implementation of the World's first non-flammable range of hair products. I guess the guy had no choice since his old collection of hair sprays and grooming products obviously *weren't exactly* in line with his sanctimonious, self-serving so called "Anti-Global Warming" campaigns. As far as I'm concerned, the whole thing is a crock organised by a bunch of left-wing quacks to scare the "Chicken-Little-types" into thinking the sky is falling - ah, phooey!

      If Gore really wants to to anything to cut *green-house gas emissions* he'd go along way by keeping his *trap shut* and going back to being the pathetic, weak and two-faced congressman he was always destined to be.

      dt_luke, for your future reference: DON'T mention wannabes in the act of acknowledging greats - we as IS folk owe *at least* that much to Berners-Lee and other pioneers in IS development.

      Sincerely.
      thx-1138_
  • OK, one of the inventors - what's the difference

    Is Bill Gates a founder of Microsoft? Who cares?!!

    If the person personifies the movement like W3C by bringing together otherwise isolated efforts ??? he is ???The Man???.

    BTW: technically speaking Internet has no inventor, - no one holds IP rights. But unlike other co-inventors Tim gave it up to help to create a movement, and he succeeded!
    lenyabloko
  • RE: Sir Tim Berners-Lee: Semantic Web is open for business

    Just like is said in the article, tagging content in a web page with tags is the smallest part. (he said something like he's "not going to hold his breath until it's done). The reason being that computers can scree-scrape and guess tags for data (my guess is that this is what Twine has to do since most sites have minimal specialized tags).

    In general, the magic happens with the Ontological relationships defined between these tags (which can be an immense amount of data), and the different triggers and responses that can be programmed in algorithms according to such ontological relationships.

    I'm no Semantic expert yet, and I'm only here to learn more, but my guess is that eventually robust Semantic applications will be able to be plugged into play by software developers. They'll be able to plug in a particular Ontological tree set and plug in a particular Natural Language Processing algorithm set and connect the two. The natural language processing algorithm would essentially connect different actions users use to the words used in the ontological tree, ultimately delivering responses to, say, a user in a social network based on HIS actions.

    If there are some experts out there, I'd love it if they "correct me if I'm wrong."

    James
    from
    FaceySpacey.com, Your One Stop Social Media ShopJust like is said in the article, tagging content in a web page with tags is the smallest part. (he said something like he's "not going to hold his breath until it's done). The reason being that computers can scree-scrape and guess tags for data (my guess is that this is what Twine has to do since most sites have minimal specialized tags).

    In general, the magic happens with the Ontological relationships defined between these tags (which can be an immense amount of data), and the different triggers and responses that can be programmed in algorithms according to such ontological relationships.

    I'm no Semantic expert yet, and I'm only here to learn more, but my guess is that eventually robust Semantic applications will be able to be plugged into play by software developers. They'll be able to plug in a particular Ontological tree set and plug in a particular Natural Language Processing algorithm set and connect the two. The natural language processing algorithm would essentially connect different actions users use to the words used in the ontological tree, ultimately delivering responses to, say, a user in a social network based on HIS actions.

    If there are some experts out there, I'd love it if they "correct me if I'm wrong."

    James
    from
    FaceySpacey.com, Your One Stop Social Media Shop
    jamesgillmore@...
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