A Data 7th Wave Approaching

4405831072_3c769de659_b Some in the surfing community will tell you that every seventh wave is a big one.  I am getting the feeling, in the world of Web, that a number seven is up next and this one is all about data. The last seventh wave was the Web itself.  Because of that, it is a little constraining to talk about this next one only effecting the world of the Web.  This one has the potential to shift some significant rocks around on all our beaches and change the way we all interact and think about the world around us.

Sticking with the seashore metaphor for a short while longer; waves from the technology ocean have the potential to wash into the bays and coves of interest on the coast of human endeavour and rearrange the pebbles on our beaches.  Some do not reach every cove, and/or only have minor impact, however some really big waves reach in everywhere to churn up the sand and rocks, significantly changing the way we do things and ultimately think about the word around us.  The post Web technology waves have brought smaller yet important influences such as ecommerce, social networking, and streaming.

I believe Data, or more precisely changes in how we create, consume, and interact with data, has the potential to deliver a seventh wave impact.  Enough of the grandiose metaphors and down to business.

Data has been around for centuries, from clay tablets to little cataloguing tags on the end of scrolls in ancient libraries, and on into computerised databases that we have been accumulating since the 1960’s.  Up until very recently these [digital] data have been closed – constrained by the systems that used them, only exposed to the wider world via user interfaces and possibly a task/product specific API.  With the advent of many data associated advances, variously labelled Big Data, Social Networking, Open Data, Cloud Services, Linked Data, Microformats, Microdata, Semantic Web, Enterprise Data, it is now venturing beyond those closed systems into the wider world.

Well this is nothing new, you might say, these trends have been around for a while – why does this constitute the seventh wave of which you foretell?

It is precisely because these trends have been around for a while, and are starting to mature and influence each other, that they are building to form something really significant.  Take Open Data for instance where governments have been at the forefront – I have reported before about the almost daily announcements of open government data initiatives.  The announcement from the Dutch City of Enschede this week not only talks about their data but also about the open sourcing of the platform they use to manage and publish it, so that others can share in the way they do it.

In the world of libraries, the Ontology Engineering Group (OEG) at the  Universidad Politécnica de Madrid are providing a contribution of linked bibliographic data to the gathering mass, alongside the British and Germans, with 2.4 Million bibliographic records from the Spanish National Library.  This adds weight to the arguments for a Linked Data future for libraries proposed by the Library of Congress and Stanford University.

I might find some of the activities in the Cloud Computing short-sighted and depressing, yet already the concept of housing your data somewhere other than in a local datacenter is becoming accepted in most industries.

Enterprise use of Linked Data by leading organisations such as the BBC who are underpinning their online Olympics coverage with it are showing that it is more that a research tool, or the province only of the open data enthusiasts.

Data Marketplaces are emerging to provide platforms to share and possibly monetise your data.  An example that takes this one step further is Kasabi.com from the leading Semantic Web technology company, Talis.  Kasabi introduces the data mixing, merging, and standardised querying of Linked Data into to the data publishing concept.  This potentially provides a platform for refining and mixing raw data in to new data alloys and products more valuable and useful than their component parts.  An approach that should stimulate innovation both in the enterprise and in the data enthusiast community.

The Big Data community is demonstrating that there are solutions, to handling the vast volumes of data we are producing, that require us to move out of the silos of relational databases towards a mixed economy.  Programs need to move – not the data, NoSQL databases, Hadoop, map/reduce, these are are all things that are starting to move out of the labs and the hacker communities into the mainstream.

The Social Networking industry which produces tons of data is a rich field for things like sentiment analysis, trend spotting, targeted advertising, and even short term predictions – innovation in this field has been rapid but I would suggest a little hampered by delivering closed individual solutions that as yet do not interact with the wider world which could place them in context.

I wrote about Schema.org a while back.  An initiative from the search engine big three to encourage the SEO industry to embed simple structured data in their html.  The carrot they are offering for this effort is enhanced display in results listings – Google calls these Rich Snippets.  When first announce, the schema.org folks concentrated on Microdata as the embedding format – something that wouldn’t frighten the SEO community horses too much.  However they did [over a background of loud complaining from the Semantic Web / Linked Data enthusiasts that RDFa was the only way] also indicate that RDFa would be eventually supported.  By engaging with SEO folks on terms that they understand, this move from from Schema.org had the potential to get far more structured data published on the Web than any TED Talk from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, preaching from people like me, or guidelines from governments could ever do.

The above short list of pebble stirring waves is both impressive in it’s breadth and encouraging in it’s potential, yet none of them are the stuff of a seventh wave.

So what caused me to open up my Macbook and start writing this.  It was a post from Manu Sporny, indicating that Google were not waiting for RDFa 1.1 Lite (the RDF version that schema.org will support) to be ratified.  They are already harvesting, and using, structured information from web pages that has been encoded using RDF.  The use of this structured data has resulted in enhanced display on the Google pages with items such as event date & location information,and recipe preparation timings.

Manu references sites that seem to be running Drupal, the open source CMS software, and specifically a Drupal plug-in for rendering Schema.org data encoded as RDFa.  This approach answers some of the critics of embedding Schema.org data into a site’s html, especially as RDF, who say it is ugly and difficult to understand.  It is not there for humans to parse or understand and, with modules such as the Drupal one, humans will not need to get there hands dirty down at code level.  Currently Schema.org supports a small but important number of ‘things’ in it’s recognised vocabularies.  These, currently supplemented by GoodRelations and Recipes, will hopefully be joined by others to broaden the scope of descriptive opportunities.

So roll the clock forward, not too far, to a landscape where a large number of sites (incentivised by the prospect of listings as enriched as their competitors results) are embedding structured data in their pages as normal practice.  By then most if not all web site delivery tools should be able to embed the Schema.org RDF data automatically.  Google and the other web crawling organisations will rapidly build up a global graph of the things on the web, their types, relationships and the pages that describe them.  A nifty example of providing a very specific easily understood benefit in return for a change in the way web sites are delivered, that results in a global shift in the amount of structured data accessible for the benefit of all.  Google Fellow and SVP Amit Singhal recently gave insight into this Knowledge Graph idea.

The Semantic Web / Linked Data proponents have been trying to convince everyone else of the great good that will follow once we have a web interlinked at the data level with meaning attached to those links.  So far this evangelism has had little success.  However, this shift may give them what they want via an unexpected route.

Once such a web emerges, and most importantly is understood by the commercial world, innovations that will influence the way we interact will naturally follow.  A Google TV, with access to such rich resource, should have no problem delivering an enhanced viewing experience by following structured links embedded in a programme page to information about the cast, the book of the film, the statistics that underpin the topic, or other programmes from the same production company.  Our iPhone version next-but-one, could be a personal node in a global data network, providing access to relevant information about our location, activities, social network, and tasks.

These slightly futuristic predictions will only become possible on top of a structured network of data, which I believe is what could very well immerge if you follow through on the signs that Manu is pointing out.  Reinforced by, and combining with, the other developments I reference earlier in this post, I believe we may well have a seventh wave approaching.  Perhaps I should look at the beach again in five years time to see if I was right.

Wave photo from Nathan Gibbs in Flickr
Declarations – I am a Kasabi Partner and shareholder in Kasabi parent company Talis.
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