Is Linked Data DIY a Good Idea?

Rocket_Science Most Semantic Web and Linked Data enthusiasts will tell you that Linked Data is not rocket science, and it is not.  They will tell you that RDF is one of the simplest data forms for describing things, and they are right.  They will tell you that adopting Linked Data makes merging disparate datasets much easier to do, and it does. They will say that publishing persistent globally addressable URIs (identifiers) for your things and concepts will make it easier for others to reference and share them, it will.  They will tell you that it will enable you to add value to your data by linking to and drawing in data from the Linked Open Data Cloud, and they are right on that too.  Linked Data technology, they will say, is easy to get hold of either by downloading open source or from the cloud, yup just go ahead and use it.  They will make you aware of an ever increasing number of tools to extract your current data and transform it into RDF, no problem there then.

So would I recommend a self-taught do-it-yourself approach to adopting Linked Data?  For an enthusiastic individual, maybe.  For a company or organisation wanting to get to know and then identify the potential benefits, no I would not.  Does this mean I recommend outsourcing all things Linked Data to a third party – definitely not.

Let me explain this apparent contradiction.  I believe that anyone having, or could benefit from consuming, significant amounts of data, can realise benefits by adopting Linked Data techniques and technologies.  These benefits could be in the form of efficiencies, data enrichment, new insights, SEO benefits, or even business models.  Gaining the full effects of these benefits will only come from not only adopting the technologies but also adopting the different way of thinking, often called open-world thinking, that comes from understanding the Linked Data approach in your context.  That change of thinking, and the agility it also brings, will only embed in your organisation if you do-it-yourself.  However, I do council care in the way you approach gaining this understanding.

bike_girl A young child wishing to keep up with her friends by migrating from tricycle to bicycle may have a go herself, but may well give up after the third grazed knee.  The helpful, if out of breath, dad jogging along behind providing a stabilising hand, helpful guidance, encouragement, and warnings to stay on the side of the road, will result in a far less painful and rewarding experience.

I am aware of computer/business professionals who are not aware of what Linked Data is, or the benefits it could provide. There are others who have looked at it, do not see how it could be better, but do see potential grazed knees if they go down that path.  And there yet others who have had a go, but without a steadying hand to guide them, and end up still not getting it.

You want to understand how Linked Data could benefit your organisation?  Get some help to relate the benefits to your issues, challenges and opportunities.  Don’t go off to a third party and get them to implement something for you.  Bring in a steadying hand, encouragement, and guidance to stay on track.  Don’t go off and purchase expensive hardware and software to help you explore the benefits of Linked Data.  There are plenty of open source stores, or even better just sign up to a cloud based service such as Kasabi.  Get your head around what you have, how you are going to publish and link it, and what the usage might be.  Then you can size and specify the technology and/or service you need to support it.

So back to my original question – Is Linked Data DIY a good idea?  Yes it is. It is the only way to reap the ‘different way of thinking’ benefits that accompany understanding the application of Linked data in your organisation.  However, I would not recommend a do-it-yourself introduction to this.  Get yourself a steadying hand.

Is that last statement a thinly veiled pitch for my services – of course it is, but that should not dilute my advice to get some help when you start, even if it is not from me.

Picture of girl learning to ride from zsoltika on Flickr.
Source of cartoon unknown.

A Data 7th Wave Approaching

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. 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. 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.

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 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 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 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 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 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 data encoded as RDFa.  This approach answers some of the critics of embedding 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 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 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.

Cloud Computing Back In The Future

Checking out Cloud Expo Europe. Much, in Linked Data circles, is implied about the mutual benefit of adopting the Cloud and Linked Open Data.
I was interested to see if the cloud vendors were as data [and the value within it] aware as the Linked Data vendors are cloud aware.

3851653293_287b8817ca_z Yesterday found me in the National Hall of London’s Olympia, checking out Cloud Expo Europe. Much, in Linked Data circles, is implied about the mutual benefit of adopting the Cloud and Linked Open Data.  Many of the technology and service providers in the Linked Data / Semantic Web space benefit from the scalability, flexibility, of delivering their services from the Cloud as Software and/or Data as a Service (SaaS / DaaS). Many employ raw services from the cloud themselves, helping them accrue and pass on those benefits.

kasabi_logo_4col A prime example of this is Kasabi. A Linked Data powered data marketplace, built on the latest generation of the Talis SaaS data platform that already provides services for organisations such as Ordnance Survey and the British Library.

I know from experience, the Kasabi operation realises many of the benefits put forward as reasons to reach for the cloud by proponents of the technology – near to zero in-house infrastructure costs, ability to rapidly scale up or down in reaction to demands, availability everywhere on anything, lower costs, etc.

So I was interested to see if the cloud vendors were as data [and the value within it] aware as the Linked Data vendors are cloud aware.

Unfortunately I can only report back a massive sense of disappointment in the lack of vision, and siloed parochial views, from practically everyone I met. The visit to the show took me back a decade or so, to the equivalent events that then extolled the virtues of the latest stack of servers that would grace your datacenter. Same people, same type of sales pitch, but now slightly fewer scantily clad or silly costumed sales people, and an iPad to win on most every stand.

How can a cloud solution salesperson be siloed and parochial in their views you may ask. Isn’t the cloud all about opening up access to your business processes across locations and devices, taking you data out of your datacenters into hosted services, and saving money whilst gaining flexibility? Yes it is, and if I was running any organisation from a tiny one like Data Liberate to a massive corporation or government I would expect to be shot for not looking to the cloud for any new or refreshed service.

But, I would also expect to be severely criticised for not also looking to see what other value could be delivered by capitalising on the distributed nature of the cloud and the Web that delivers it. The basic pitch from many I spoke to boiled down to “let us take what you do, unchanged, and put it in our cloud“. One line I must share with you was “back your data up to our cloud and we cane save you all that hassle of mucking about with tapes“.

Perhaps I am being a bit harsh. There is potentially significant ROI that can be gained from moving processes, as is, in to the cloud and I would recommend all organisations to consider it. I expected a significant number of exhibitors to be doing exactly what I describe. My disappointment comes from finding not a single one who could see beyond the simple replacement of locally hosted hardware (and staff) with cloud services.

Perhaps I am getting a bit too visionary in my old age.

There was glimmer of light during the day –  I read Paul Miller’s write up, and scanned the Twitter stream for #cloudcamp, which took place in London the evening before.  Maybe I should have just attended that, which unfortunately I couldn’t.  Then I might be less downbeat about the ‘Cloud’ future just taking us back to the same old implementations of the past, just hosted elsewhere – an opportunity being missed.

If you know different, let me know and raise my mood a bit.

Disclosure: I am a Kasabi Partner and shareholder in Kasabi’s parent company, Talis.
Clouds from picture by Martin Sojka on Flickr