Semantic Web takes root at the IA Summit

At the recent IA Summit, I was surprised and delighted to see how many talks there were about the Semantic Web. Before this emerging technology can really catch on, we will need more Information Architects and Interaction Designers who understand the potential and can design elegant solutions to real problems (both user problems and business problems). In some ways, I wish the conversation were further along, but I realize that it has to start somewhere. The fact that the subject exploded onto the scene in such a big way is a good indication that Web 3.0 is on a lot of people’s minds. 

These are the talks I saw:

In A Fundamental Disruption, Peter Sweeney and Robert Barlow-Busch posed the question “How do IAs design for information that’s self-organizing?” They showed several current products designed for use by consumers (as opposed to “information professionals”), including Freebase, Calais, Zepheira’s Remix, and their own product Primal Fusion. I was a little disappointed that, when it came to addressing the question “What does this mean for IA?” they raised the question, pointed to Kevin Kelly’s TED Talk, and didn’t have much more to say about it. 

Chiara Fox took a different approach. In her talk, The Semantic Web: What IAs Need to Know About Web 3.0, she outlined the basics, starting with a hand-drawn visual depiction of the historic scenario described in that foundational Scientific American article from 2001. An evocative portrayal, but perhaps she spent too much time on that, since the Semantic Web community has moved beyond that particular vision, and even Fox herself admitted, “This hasn’t come true, eitght years later. And some parts of it make me a little queasy.” (She was referring, primarily, to concerns about trust and privacy). 

But next she pulled out the bits of that vision that are still of interest: sharing data, smart agents, and using a wide variety of platforms to interact with the “web”. She went on to explain the underlying concepts that would be important to understand in order to design for this vision. I know from experience that this requires walking a very fine line between being too technical and being too abstract. She seemed, to me, to strike a good balance, but I’m not sure how it came across to people who were hearing about this stuff for the first time. 

In Discovering & Mining the Everyday, Richard Ziade and Tim Meaney (from arc90, makers of Readibility) focused more on Tim Berners-Lee’s current stance on the Semantic Web, with particular attention to the data-sharing aspect. The principal is that data will fuel the Semantic Web – massive amounts of data, generated by everyone’s online activities. What would make people want to share that data, or generate new data that might be useful to others? Meaney and Ziade propose (as I’ve also suggested) that in order for the Semantic Web to take off, it will need to provide compelling consumer tools that exploit our self interest. Tools along the lines of flickr, delicious, and last.fm, where users provide useful shared data primarily as a byproduct of activities that serve their own personal needs. The speakers also touched on the privacy issue, but mostly to point out that we’ve started to become accustomed to giving up privacy in exchange for the value that services provide us. 

Chris Thorne gave a talk called Ubiquitous Information Architecture: Building for change and web 3.0 in which he spoke about the BBC’s work with Semantic Web principals, focusing on the architecture of a very specific type of information: URIs. Uniform Resource Identifiers are key to the success of the Semantic Web, because being able to assign each concept a unique and persistant ID makes sharing data a lot more accurate. Still, I’m not sure this was quite the right audience for this talk.

I’m hoping that this is just the beginning of these types of presentations and discussions, and I can’t wait to see what kind of work this inspires. 

5 thoughts on “Semantic Web takes root at the IA Summit

  1. Pingback: IA Summit Goes Semantic - Scatter/Gather: a Razorfish blog about content strategy, pop culture and human behavior

  2. I’m interested in why you don’t think the IA summit was necessarily the right audience for Chris Thorne’s presentation on URIs. Too technical?

  3. Rachel

    It’s not so much that it was too technical, but it was so completely focused on an area that many American IAs probably view as data architecture, not information architecture. I can’t claim to understand the full range of what is and is not considered within the domain of IA, but looking at descriptions of the other talks at the summit, and based on the ones that I attended, I think that the focus tends to be more on the design of interactions and user experience, and less on the structure of some aspect of the underlying data.

    Personally I found it interesting, but I’m a Content Strategist, and beyond that I’m one who is very interested in data models, metadata, content structure and content organization. I didn’t get a chance to talk to other people about what they thought of Thorne’s talk, but it struck me as being a little out of place. People may still have gotten something valuable out of it, but I can think of other conferences that would probably have been a better fit (Linked Data on the Web, Semantic Technology Conference, Web 3.0, to name a few).

    1. That’s interesting. I guess maybe a sympton of an increasing re-positioning of IA as “just UX”. IAs interested in data models and metadata were always a smaller subset but it used to feel like a legitimate IA ‘special interest’.

  4. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for the write-up. Of course the mention of Remix (or as we’re renaming it, “Freemix”–updated site soon to come) caught my eye, but more generally it’s good to see these ideas penetrating IA. It’s not so much that IA needs big-S semantic tech, but the basic ideas of URIs as significant IDs, and a path towards formalizing relationships from more informal links will soon become standard for the profession.

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