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Two Misconceptions about the Semantic Web

November 18th, 2011

I recently presented at the Semantic Graph Database Processing BOF at SC2011, and I had the opportunity to discuss with others the needs for high-performance computing in web-scale computation and the benefits of Linked Data and ontologies on the World Wide Web. There was one participant there who was adamantly opposed to the semantic web.  (I think his exact quotes outside of the presentation were something like “I do not believe in the semantic web” and “only the semantic web cares about the semantic web”).  As I tried to make my case with him, it became increasingly clear to me that this person had a few misconceptions about the semantic web. I want to address those misconceptions here.

Before I continue, though, allow me to disclaim a bit. I am not a representative of the entire semantic web community, although I do consider myself a member of it. Additionally, I am not officially associated with the W3C. I write this blog entry simply in the capacity of a semantic web enthusiast (henceforth, semwebber), and not even as a member of the Tetherless World Constellation. I invite, nay, urge other semwebbers to contribute comments to this blog post in any capacity (agree, disagree, amend, etc.).

1. “One ontology to rule them all”

To my knowledge, nobody has ever claimed that there should be “one ontology to rule them all.” Instead, what is regularly promoted is ontology reuse and/or integration. For example, the FOAF ontology is widely used in the semantic web to describe persons; why create your own ontology when you can reuse a well-established one? Integration of ontologies allows for conciliation of perspectives, causing data that use these ontologies to become meaningfully related. Admittedly, there are some rather large, comprehensive ontologies out there, and there are some very popular and pervasive ones, too. However, there is no standard or recommendation that requires publishers of RDF data to comply with any particular ontology. You could even ignore the RDF vocabulary if you so please (yes, even rdf:type).

The primary purpose of an ontology (in my view) is to attach explicit semantics to your data. Just as the participant had stated (although he meant it in contrast to the semantic web), there are many ontologies. They compete in the ecosystem of the World Wide Web and evolve accordingly (or become extinct).

2. “Triples all the way down”

(First, let me say, this is not an affront to Planet RDF.)

This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, and perhaps what I say here will offend some semwebbers (I hope not). The semantic web (in my view) is not about “triples all the way down.” What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

RDF brings primarily two things to the table when it comes to publishing and integrating data on the web: names in the form of URIs, and a simple data model that is flexible enough for (arguably) nearly any kind of data. (I would like to add a third, meaningful links, but I will avoid that for now.) So when data is published to the web, publishing it as RDF allows you: (1) to identify the things in your data across the World Wide Web, and (2) to structurally (and possibly semantically) integrate your data with other data on the World Wide Web. (I emphasize “World Wide” here to bring to attention the vast scope of publication, identification, and integration that is being achieved.) Fantastic.

Does this mean that everything can be efficiently (or rather, ideally) represented in RDF? No. Then why would you ever want to handle triples? You probably don’t. Let me explain.

RDF is meant to solve the problem of meaningfully publishing data (not just documents) on the World Wide Web. Beyond that, do what you want. More specifically, when you crawl and/or aggregate data from the World Wide Web, you don’t have to keep the RDF data as triples in your system. It is no longer on the global stage of the World Wide Web; rather, it is now in your system where you are king. So optimize away! Store it or process it however you like! Relational databases? Sure! Rewrite URIs as shorter terms? Whatever floats your boat! Ignore the explicit semantics and treat it like an unlabeled graph? I wouldn’t recommend it, but you’re the king! Do whatever it takes to meet your use case, and if your use case has something to do with RDF data, then fine, leave it as triples if you want. My point is, it’s not necessarily “RDF all the way down,” but it is “RDF at the top” where “top” is the place of publication, the World Wide Web. The universal naming mechanism of URIs and the generic data model enables data publishers to get data out there in a way that can be explicitly understood by machines (for example, when I say “Beast is furry,” am I talking about Mark Zuckerberg’s dog or the fictional X-Man Dr. Henry Philip “Hank” McCoy?), but as the creator of that machine, it’s up to you how to utilize those explicit semantics.

Beast, Mark Zuckerberg's DogBeast, the fictional X-Man (They both look furry to me.)

To be clear, though, I am promoting RDF as a way to publish structured, semantic data as opposed to not publishing structured, semantic data.  In the future, it is conceivable that there may exist other good ways to publish structured, semantic data, but RDF exists today and is widely used.

So I will leave it at that. Again, I invite comments, rebuttals, accolades, disparagements, etc.

Jesse Weaver

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Biomedical Semantics and the Cloud

November 18th, 2011

I’ve been asked to give a 30 minute talk on biomedical semantics in the cloud at the Molecular Med Tri Con in the symposium on cloud computing. Here’s what I know about what’s going on in this area at the moment:

So that’s on the “semantics using the cloud” side, but I really think that there’s a lot of potential going the other way: using semantics to discover data and services in the cloud. SADI has the ability to discover and link services through ontologies. It’s similar to SAWSDL (in fact, they wrap SAWSDL services), but they don’t bother with the extra layer, and just let the service process RDF directly. When SADI services are deployed to the cloud, it’ll solve a big problem for people who want others to use their services/algorithms without the overhead of maintaining those servers themselves. In fact, with the Amazon DevPay structure, it’s possible for small labs to release datasets, databases, and algorithms to the world and not have to pay to support it.

I say when, not if, because my implementation of SADI in Python is almost ready for deployment through Google App Engine (which can be deployed in AWS or other systems using AppScale), and from what I hear, it won’t take much work to do the same with the Java implementation. Between this and the extreme portability of python SADI services (it’s just a script), use in the cloud and redeployment to private clouds is going to be trivial.

So I’m asking folks, am I full of it? Also, what else is there out there? Please help me out so that we all get some good exposure!

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My report on Open Government Data camp 2011

November 2nd, 2011

A few days ago I (Alvaro Graves) participated in the Open Government Data Camp 2011 in Warsaw, Poland, where people from different groups, organizations and governments met to discuss issues related to Open Data at government level. Here are some of the most important issues found in theese talk, in my opinion.

The current state of OGD

David Eaves, an activist who advises the city of Vancouver, Canada in issues about Open Data, gave a keynote in which he described his views on the current state of Open Data movement. First, it is striking that the success stories are not just a few anymore (as Data.gov or Data.gov.uk) but there are dozens (perhaps hundreds), both at national, regional and local levels. Similarly, the term Open Government Data is becoming increasingly popular, which is good because it is easier to stop explaining the ‘what’ and start focusing in the ‘how’.

Another interesting point is how the movement of Open Government Data already passed an inflection point, where it is no longer seen as people demanding from the outside, but being increasingly being invited to help working on these initiatives from within the government. For many, this change in perspective can be confusing and may create some concerns of Open Data being absorbed in a bureaucratic system that makes impossible to implement Open Data initiatives. However, it is clear that in order for these changes to occur, the movement can not reject to collaborate with governments.

Local initiatives, by locals

A talk that I really liked was by Ton Zylstra, who lives in the city of Enschede, the Netherlands. This city has only 150,000 inhabitants. He wanted an Open Data initiative there, however, it was difficult to convince the authorities, so he with a group of people decided to start working on their own. Inviting a handful of hackers to a bar, they created their first application that used data from Twitter, Foursquare, and the venues of a local festival. Eventually they convinced the municipal government that the default option for local data ought to be open.

From this experience, Ton showed several important lessons: You have to create something concrete, no matter if it is small: This implies something that requires little funding (the first beers at the bar were free) and short-term (no more than a couple of weeks). It does not matter if it is something original or not, there are some great ideas out there that deserve to be copied and are very useful for the local community.

How the Open Data died

Another very interesting keynote was by Chris Taggart, founder of OpenCorporates, who warned of the risks that the Open Data movement is facing today. His main concern is the lack of relevance in terms of impact Open Data has on society. For example, he mentioned that so far no one’s business depends on Open Data (although this is not true, there are a few out there, but I have to concede they are rare examples). In general, making data available is not enough, it is necessary for it to be used either in applications, by data journalists, etc. Also, it is fundamental to link different sites with Open Data (something quite uncommon in the movement), so that people can find out more information. Finally, I liked his idea that if the Open Data does not cause problems to its incumbents, then it is not working.

Redefining what is public

Finally another talk that I found interesting was the idea of ​​Dave Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy, and Nigel Shaldbolt, professor at University of Southampton, to redefine “the public” in terms of data that “is available on the Web in machine-processable formats.” That is, uploading a bunch of PDFs with scanned tables does not make that information public, because it is not easily accessible. This initiative raises the bar of what public data is, especially when compared to the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) that allows you to request information from government. Note that this applies to all information, as Rasiej so vehemently described it.

So… what did you talked about at OGDCamp?

In my case, I presented a system for publishing Linked Data called LODSPeaKr, which can be used for the rapid publication of government data and to create applications based on Linked Data. In the near future I will be writing more about this framework, but for now you can see my presentation here.

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AAAI 2011 Fall Symposium on Open Government Knowledge, This weekend (Nov 4-6), Washington DC

November 1st, 2011

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Title:  Open Government Knowledge: AI Opportunities and Challenges
When:  4-6 November 2011
Where:  Westin Arlington Gateway in Arlington, Virginia, USA
Homepage: http://tw.rpi.edu/ogk2011
Program (PDF): http://tw.rpi.edu/media/latest/ogk2011.pdf
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Please join us to meet the thought governmental and business leaders in
US open government data activities, and discuss the challenges. The
symposium features Friday (Nov 4) as governmental day with speakers on
Data.gov, openEi.org, open gov data activities in NIH/NCI, NASA. and
Saturday (Nov 5) as R&D day with speakers from industry such as Google
and Microsoft, as well international researchers.

This symposium will explore how AI technologies such as the Semantic Web,
information extraction, statistical analysis and machine learning, can be used
to make the valuable knowledge embedded in open government data more
explicit, accessible and reusable.

Co-Chairs
* Li Ding, Qualcomm (Previously RPI)
* Tim Finin, UMBC
* Lalana Kagal, MIT
* Deborah McGuinness, RPI

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