Posted by: Clive | July 9, 2008

The semantic web – joining the dots

This morning Tim Berners-Lee, the pioneering developer of the world wide web was interviewed (listen here) about the emergence of the semantic web. Simply put, the semantic web is a way of making powerful connections between data on the internet. And data is the operative word.

For many years after Berners-Lee invented the web the format in which documents were and still are largely published on it, has been through ‘marking up’ a document in HTML. That’s the programming language and that’s been the convention. And unsurprisingly, giving the benefits of mass publishing it affords, everyone has readily adopted it. However, not all documents are data nor is every document data. Think of spreadsheets if that helps. Now if data can be somehow ‘unhinged’ from web pages, then it could be used in a number of different ways. It could be mashed up with other data. That’s what’s been happening with Google maps which have been overlaid with all kinds of data. For example, World Health Organisation data has been mashed up with Google maps (, and photographs uploaded to the photosharing site flickr have been mashed with a Google map of the world (flickrvision).

Two things need to happen in order for the dots to be joined up. The dots must be in the public domain and they need to be published not in HTML but in RDF (Rich Data Format). If that happens (and it’s starting to happen in various research centres around the world), then some very bright geeky types can develop some very remarkable applications. As Berners-Lee explains in the interview, a lot of initial experimentation seems frivolous. But the sandbox needs playtime and it looks as if some significant innovations are in the pipleline. In fact, we may look back on this moment in the development of networked communication as being just the rudimentary beginnings.

Anyway, here are a couple of those frivolous applications. Have a play … and marvel (do some lateral thinking) at the potential.

Random Walk Through Influences – an application that displays a chain of historical influence around any artist whose name you enter using data from freebase.

Powerset – a Natural Language search engine that also uses Freebase.

And it’s still raining! There’s no way I’ll be able to convince the family of the joys of camping if it carries on like this …


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