« Futureproofing | Main | Keynotes »


Semantic Web Soul Searching

The following anecdote may seem completely off topic but bear with me: One of my cousins' kids was participating in the -- get this -- Finnish version of the "American Idol" TV-show/competition. He was actually a finalist, and we are all quite excited about this, of course. So the other day, I surfed onto the Web site of Finnish channel 3 to find out what's going on with the competition. What a horrible Web site, really an example of how Bad Design (I suppose) can lead to Bad Usability. I spent more time trying to figure out how to use the site rather than actually reading/consuming the content I was interested in; at the end, I was left with a feeling that I didn't actually find what I wanted.

Seemingly on a different topic, I just read Dave Beckett's blog entry titled "semantic web is webby data", where Dave claims -- I am paraphrasing -- that the Semantic Web is merely a Web-compatible way to link data. This made me give some more thought to what I -- today -- think the Semantic Web really is.

I agree with Dave that the Semantic Web is a way to link data using (or -- compatible with) Web technologies. But I don't think that's all. So what then?

I think that there are two important components to the Semantic Web:

1) A technological approach to making it easier to exchange data between information systems. Yes, this involves the use of Web technologies, but the use of shared agreements (as established by schemata, ontologies and yes, logic) ultimately facilitates some of the automated aspects of the said exchange. Without automation, we are really not beyond what we have been able to do for a long time: figuring out how and what you want to exchange, working on standards, etc.

2) A vision of where we (given some specific definition of "we", admittedly) would like to go with our use of information technologies. I think that modern technology is too hard to use (I elaborated on this a bit in a recent talk I gave -- slides are linked from here). The vision of the Semantic Web is ultimately inspired by the hope that we can make technology serve us, rather than the other way around (as now often is the case). It is this aspect of the Semantic Web that is very much about AI.

That's not all, however. After 10+ years of work into various aspects of the Semantic Web and its constituent technologies, I am now fully convinced (read: no longer in denial) that most of the remaining challenges to realize the Semantic Web vision have nothing to do with the underlying technologies involving data, ontologies, reasoning, etc. Instead, it all comes down to user interfaces and usability. Somehow, I repeatedly run into a situation where some use of Semantic Web technologies that would make a nice end-user application is "blocked" by the fact that the user interface is the real challenge.

(Hence my anecdote about Web site usability in the beginning of this rant.)

For a long time (longer than I have worked on the Semantic Web) I have wanted to build systems that work on users' behalf. Semantic Web is one of the enabling technologies, a means to an end, and not the end itself. Every time I look critically at the current use of (information) technology, I cannot help but wonder how it is possible to actually get away with the approach taken today (where substantial burden is placed on the users).

(Another anecdote that in my mind is relevant: I happened to see a TV-commercial where the slogan was something like "It is time to love your PC again" -- indeed we really have come to a situation where this actually can be a selling point...)

Posted by ora at 08:24


I couldn't agree more. Practically every semweb application I've seen involves some sort of incomprehensible graph or other visual metaphor that just doesn't work. It seems we feel the need to let the data model drive the experience rather than providing a good experience regardless of the underlying model. Not surprisingly, programmers seem to have a real problem separating the two. I know I do. :)

Posted by: Brian Manley at March 19, 2007 12:20 PM

The Semantic Web is infrastructure. Look at all the specs—there's just gears and tubes and wires. You can use them to build systems that turn people into corporate drones, or you can use it to build systems that free people from the tyranny of the information hamster's wheel.

So, I'm with Dave on what the Semantic Web is. Now, what we can do with it once we have nailed down the webby data thing is another question, and it's where the fun starts. You have a vision for that, a good and important vision that I share to some extent. And it may well be true that all the challenges that remain to make that vision a reality are UI related.

But the Semantic Web community is not unified by a vision. It is unified by a set of specifications and technologies. It's a comnunity of practice. Everyone is in here for a different reason, not everyone shares yours, and this diversity is a good thing.

Posted by: Richard Cyganiak at March 20, 2007 08:08 AM

Richard, I do agree with you. I am not oblivious to the fact that not everyone share my vision (hence my comment in the post about the term "we" being very specific :-). I have nothing against other pursuing some other goals, as long as it does not prevent me from pursuing my vision. I do think, however, that a lot of the infrastructure came from some people buying into (at least parts of) the vision. That makes it more than just infrastructure.

Posted by: Ora Lassila at March 20, 2007 06:28 PM

Brian, you make a good point. I think we need to understand that the Semantic Web is an enabling technology that can help us implement some really nice user friendly applications. The users should not have to be avare that these applications are "Semantic Web applications", that's irrelevant.

Posted by: Ora Lassila at March 20, 2007 06:31 PM