Planting Seeds for the Semantic Web

Eric Miller

A couple weeks ago I brought Eric Miller (of Zepheira and W3C, among other things) into my office to lead a workshop on the Semantic Web. Many of my colleagues are interested in the subject, but with varying levels of familiarity. And none of us are really sure what to do with it yet. My goal in organizing this workshop was to activate and deepen our group’s knowledge, excitement and involvement, vis a vis the semantic web.

For a good five hours we listened and discussed, as Eric gave us some background, presented case studies, told anecdotes and responded to our questions. The information was great, and the inspiration was even more valuable. Eric combines deep knowledge with a keen business sense. He’s able to be visionary while keeping it all in perspective. This is not always true of the brilliant people I’ve met in this industry.

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Enterprise Solutions Summit 2007

Last week my office arranged a summit on Enterprise Solutions. The first day was employees only, so we could discuss the current and future practice of Enterprise Solutions at Avenue A | Razorfish. It was a day full of animated discussion.

Having a strong interest in Content Strategy, the semantic web, and knowledge management, I’ve thought a lot about how these elements could be put to use within an organization, to help support the goals and needs of an enterprise. But I hadn’t had a chance to discuss it with a lot of people that I work with. The summit was attended by people from all different disciplines – technology, strategy, client relations – and I got to see a wide range of perspectives on the issues.

Jimmy Wales

The second day included clients, and we had a range of speakers and use case presentations. Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia) gave a keynote, though in some ways it was more interesting talking to him at the cocktail party the night before. Kind of a mysterious character. He must have people talking to him all the time about their favorite topic, and they’re stunned when he doesn’t have the entire body of knowledge represented by Wikipedia at his immediate disposal.

I say this because I saw him, a couple times, respond to people with what can only be described as pride about his ignorance of some topic or other. I can only imagine that he’s developed this technique as a defensive measure against people who would otherwise say, “But how can you not know about [insert nerdy topic of interest here]??”

I’m as guilty as the next nerd, in this respect. One of my colleagues enthusiastically mentioned that I’m interested in the Semantic Web and Wales responded that he doesn’t get it, and he doses off every time he tries to read the article. I prodded him a little bit, and asked what he thinks of people using Wikipedia to extract concepts and generate ontologies. He said he thinks it’s pretty cool, since, after all, it’s the biggest collection of human knowledge ever.

I had a feeling that was about as far as it was going to go, so I told him that if the movie The Fifth Element were made today, Leeloo would have learned about human life by speed-reading Wikipedia (instead of absorbing encyclopedic video feeds). He seemed to like that idea.

You can read a more thorough account of the highlights of the Enterprise Solution Summit over on Shiv Singh’s Workplace Blog. He also gives a good account of Jimmy Wales’ keynote and the very lively panel that closed out the day.

I want to Twine

Can I use that as a verb? Well, I’m going to anyway.

If you haven’t seen or heard of Twine, it’s a new Semantic Web Application from Radar Networks. The project was kept secret for quite a while, but Nova Spivack unveiled it last week at Web 2.0.

From what I’ve seen, it’s a social, semantically enabled, co-brandable information collecting & sharing service. Well, that makes it sound a lot more clinical than it really should. Picture something like Facebook+Digg+del.icio.us+flickr+blog+email+??. Only it’s smarter because, while allowing you to tag the content you want to share, it also extracts concepts and makes tagging suggestions. By “co-brandable” I mean that one can create different communities, and they’ll sort of stay distinct, but your profile can cross communities and mingle. Or something like that.

Honestly, there’s probably more to it that I’m not able to express. I requested an invite to the beta on Monday, but haven’t heard back yet. I’ll post more when I do and I’m able to try it out first hand.

Digital Design Outlook

My company, Avenue A | Razorfish, has published a Digital Design Outlook book, and an accompanying blog. I contributed an article providing a user experience perspective on the Semantic Web. I’m excited about the potential for bridging the gap between really powerful semantic technologies and elegant and effective user experiences. I think this is one of the major digital design challenges of the next few years.

For more details, read my article, The Semantic Web We Weave, on the Digital Design Blog.

SXSW 2008: Panel Picker open for business!

SXSW Interactive lets the public decide what they want to see at the conference. All you have to do is go to the Panel Picker, sign up for an account, and then start rating your interest in the 683 proposed topics. Vote before midnight on Friday, September 21st.

These are the proposals I submitted:

Semantic Web for UX

This morning I did a presentation on the Semantic Web for my fellow User Experience colleagues. I’m really pleased with how it went. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to frame this issue from the perspective of User Experience Design and I think I succeed in getting some people intrigued. Hopefully this will be the start of a long discussion on how to begin creating elegant, effective user-centered applications of semantic technologies.

Tom Coates is doing a talk on Designing for a Web of Data at dconstruct. I wish I could go, because we all need more thoughtful discussions about practice in this area and I think Coates has a great point of view for this kind of thing. Unfortunately, the conference is already sold out (plus, it’s in Brighton, UK). Hopefully, as his thought evolves on this subject, Tom will continue to speak and write about these emerging design challenges, and I’ll get to hear him another time.

Also, as I was preparing for this presentation, I read and skimmed a lot of blogs, articles, and other musings about Semantic Web (or semantic web, or even semantic Web, if you prefer). I thought I’d share some of them, starting with:

Web 3.0 hits the mainstream

This is kind of old news, but I wanted to include a link to the New York Times article that made me realize that Semantic Technology is on the verge of breaking through.  I especially like this bit:

“In its current state, the Web is often described as being in the Lego phase, with all of its different parts capable of connecting to one another. Those who envision the next phase, Web 3.0, see it as an era when machines will start to do seemingly intelligent things.”

More Resources

I added a few things to the Resources page.

A few new tools, like Piggy Bank – an open source tool for gathering data. I haven’t tried it, but I heard a couple people mention it at the Semantic Technology Conference. Sounds like a good way to gather data for prototypes and proof-of-concept projects. 

A couple Semantic Wikis (Visual Knowledge and Knoodl.com). I’m very interested in this approach because it seems like a manageable entry into the world of building semantic content. People are already kind of familiar with the way to interact with a wiki, and this overlays a powerful layer of functionality. People will be building semantic content and applications without even realizing it. Unfortunately I think that both of these products have a little way to go before they are fully presenatble, but it’s great to be able to go in and play around with them. Alice in MetaLand is a budding semantic community built on the Visual Knowledge platform.

 I also stumbled across this Semantic Web FAQ, which seems to be a work in progress, but has some potential. Check it out and add some things, if you feel so inclined.

Re-naming the Semantic Web

One of the things I heard a lot of people buzzing about at the Semantic Technology Conference last week was whether or not the Semantic Web would be more accessible to people (as a concept) if it were called something else. Apparently people don’t like the word “semantic.” I sometimes forget that, and then I read something like this (admittedly fairly old) article about Tim Berners-Lee in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The framing metaphor – Berners-Lee as Tolkien – is nonsensical. You could swap out any author who invented a culture with its own language and the metaphor would work just as well (or just as poorly). And, it’s ridiculous to imply that the significant factor of the WWW is that it’s based on an invented language; computer programming languages and markup languages have a long history that predates the WWW. In the end, this metaphor does nothing to illuminate the social, economic, and cultural impact of the Web. (It does have a handy subtext, though – apparently people who are interested in the underlying workings of the Web are nerds, just like people who are passionate about Lord of the Rings.)

With frequent references to “futuristc” and “magic” and “special codes,” the Chronicle article starts out by oversimplifying the concepts of Semantic Web and quickly shifts to steeping them in acronyms and dense technical jargon. If this really is the view of the Semantic Web that’s out there, then perhaps it does need a more consumer-friendly name.

Continue reading “Re-naming the Semantic Web”

Coming Soon: More SemTech

I’m not going to try to liveblog the rest of the Semantic Technology Conference. There’s a lot here to absorb and report on, and I’ll be adding more details once I’ve had some time to process a bit and sort through the materials. I’ve seen a lot of interesting tools and communities, which I’ll be writing about later and adding to the Resources page.

For now I’ll just say that I made it through my own presentation and I’m very pleased with how it went. More about that later, as well.