Does the Semantic Web matter?

My business card reads 'Technology Evangelist,' and this is a blog about the Semantic Web. So that should be an unequivocal 'Yes!

1484609462_013467b135_m.jpgMy business card reads 'Technology Evangelist,' and this is a blog about the Semantic Web. So that should be an unequivocal 'Yes!' then, right?

However, it's frequently worthwhile to revisit and question presumptions, beliefs and 'truths,' and the Semantic Web that dominates so much of my working day should be no exception.

I am surrounded by smart people who live and breathe the Semantic Web, and I'm an employee and shareholder in a company that is betting its future growth (and, therefore, mine) on the significance and viability of this next wave.

Through this blog, my podcasts and other activities, I’ve probably met (or will meet) the cream of the Semantic Technology crop, and it is both an honour and daunting to move in such circles. The vision of these individuals is often compelling, although the gleam of zealous fervour in some eyes can prove unsettling.

The 'excitement' of squeezing another million triples into your triple store is, frankly, not that exciting in the bigger scheme of things. Talk of huge and all-encompassing ontologies is deeply unsettling, both philosophically and practically. Expectations, whether implicit or explicit, that vast legions will 'do' the Semantic Web and express themselves in RDF are, frankly, lunacy. The speed with which 'RDF' or 'OWL' enter any conversation about the Semantic Web is worrying; and must ultimately prove self-defeating as potential adopters retreat from a barrage of terminology and an opaque glut of unnecessary detail.

Continuing landgrabs by startups that seek to attract, trap and exploit eyeballs stand unashamedly on the shoulders of Semantic Web promise whilst running counter to its basic tenets of linking and openness. On the other hand, companies 'just' doing perfectly reasonable - and valuable - things with the meanings of words, phrases and documents latch on to the Semantic Web's buzz, whilst being all about Semantics and not at all about the Web.

New entrants, hopefully building viable and useful businesses upon the Semantic Web's ideas, are pilloried by stalwarts of the 'community,' because the reality of their business model does not permit a whole-hearted embracing of the entire Semantic Web stack from Day One. Intellectual purity clashes with pragmatism and reality on a daily basis. Well-meaning guidelines and best practices morph in the minds of too many to become laws, 'truths', and rods with which to beat outsiders. Visions of Orwellian pigs fill my brain, and I don't like what I see as they rise up onto two feet and gaze disdainfully around.

Deep down, though, the core principles upon which the specifications, recommendations and code rest resonate powerfully with my views about how the world should be.

The Web is a truly wonderful thing. It has made previously scarce resources available to many by removing real barriers to seeing information as a non-rival good; it is has dramatically lowered the cost of reaching an audience or market, and offers a Platform from which many millions can have their say; it ensures that the most obscure topics can develop communities of interest, even when spread over continental distances. It's fun, it's informative, it's profitable, it's transformational, it's educational. And yes, it's often 'wrong,' it can be shallow, and it remains far from universal.

The mainstream Web is becoming ever-richer, as the crowd embraces Web 2.0 principles and participates in conversation across a growing number of online places. This very richness and diversity, though, poses a problem if we are to progress to the next level.

It took the rise of Google in the closing years of the last century to square that circle, dramatically increasing the discoverability of new resources and shortly thereafter settling upon a model by which Google and its dependants could make money. We take much of this for granted today, but the development of the Web - and its viability - have been both remarkable and dramatic. I remember the wonder of those early images from the Vatican and the Louvre, brought across the water and onto my desk. I remember the initial bubbling-up of 'amateur' content from individuals inside universities, the bizarrely compelling observation of a not-so-distant coffee pot, and the breathlessness with which select mainstream media (such as the UK's Guardian newspaper) tracked the journey.

Much that was once amazing is now taken for granted. Many that were once 'the next big thing' are no more. The number of people connected, the ways in which they connect, and the things they seek to do once online grow every day, yet the fundamental means of connection between all of these people, all of these places, and all of these things remains the dumb hyperlink. A simple 'look here.' A blind pointer into the Void. An impediment to further progress.

This is what the so-called Semantic Web sets out to address. All of the specifications, all of the technology, are about enabling the description of 'stuff' - and the connections between one piece of stuff and another - to be declared in ways that are explicit, intelligible and actionable to both humans and software applications acting on their behalf.

Author: Paul Miller

This tells you, the human reader, quite a lot. It's almost opaque to the growing band of software aggregators and agents that trawl the web on behalf of users.

By simply adding the semantics that associate name with person, person with the authored work, and both person and work with the 'act' of authorship, that same statement becomes more meaningful. By following the so-called Linked Data Design Issues and expressing these semantics in a 'linkable' fashion, the network of relationships between (in this case) me, my communities of interest and my authored works grows stronger and more useful, across the artificial boundaries imposed by 'communities,' applications and the like.

A wealth of data and connections exist today, with most remaining woefully under-exploited. We're already seeing big industries such as Pharmaceuticals apply Semantic Web techniques in realising the potential in the data they already have, and lowering the costs of developing new medicines as a result.

We face serious problems in the world today. Not everything can be solved by analysing and using data, but it should surely be an important tool in support of all our other efforts. By moving from a mentality that sees data 'closed' by default to one in which data is 'open' by default, we have much to gain. By embracing 'the Web' within our applications rather than continuing to see it, practically, as merely an adjunct we can unlock more of the potential that already exists.

The Semantic Web is not some 'new' Web. It is not a replacement for what we have today. It is a progression, and an embracing of shifting perceptions as to what is 'normal' and what is possible.

So yes, the Semantic Web does matter. And it’s my job to play my small part in showing you how, and why.

Bring it on.

Image shared on Flickr by Matthew Jett Hall.