The latest release of Schema.org (v3.3 August 2017) included enhancements proposed by The Tourism Structured Web Data Community Group.

Although fairly small, these enhancements have significantly improved the capability for describing Tourist Attractions and hopefully enabling more tourist discoveries like the one pictured here.

The TouristAttraction Type

The TouristAttraction type has been around, as a subtype of Place, from the earliest days back in 2011.  However it did not have any specific properties of its own or examples for its use.  For those interested in promoting and sharing data to help with tourism and the discovery of tourist attractions, the situation was a bit limiting.

As a result of the efforts by the group, TouristAttraction now has two properties — availableLanguage (A language someone may use with or at the item, service or place.) and touristType (Attraction suitable for type(s) of tourist. eg. Children, visitors from a particular country, etc.).   So now we can say, in data, for example that an attraction is suitable for Spanish & French speaking tourists who are interested in wine.

Application and Examples

At initial view the addition of a couple of general purpose properties does not seem much of an advancement.  However the set of examples, that the Group has provided, demonstrate the power and flexibility of this enhanced type for use with tourism.

The principle behind their approach, as demonstrated in the examples, is that most anything can be of interest to a tourist — a beach, mountain, costal highway, ancient building, work of art, war cemetery, winery, amusement park — the list is endless.  It was soon clear that it would not be practical to add tourist relevant properties to all such relevant types within Schema.org.

Multi-Typed Entities (MTEs)
The Multi-Type Entity is a powerful feature of Schema.org which has often caused confusion and has a bit of a reputation for being complex.  When describing a thing (an entity in data speak) Schema.org has the capability to indicate that it is of more than one type.

For example you could be describing a Book, with an author, subject, isbn, etc., and in order to represent a physical example of that book you can also say it is a Product with weight, width, purchaseDate, itemCondition, etc.  In Schema.org you simply achieve that by indicating in your mark-up that the thing you are describing is both a Book and a Product.

Utilising the MTE principle for tourism, you would firstly describe the thing itself, using the appropriate Schema.org Types (Mountain, Church, Beach, AmusementPark, etc.).  Having done that you then add the TouristAttraction type. 

In Microdata it would look like this:
  <div itemtype=“http://schema.org/Cemetery” itemscope>
    <link itemprop=“additionalType” href=“http://schema.org/TouristAttraction” />
    <meta itemprop=“name” content=“Villers–Bretonneux Australian National Memorial />

In JSON-LD:
<script type=“application/ld+json”>
{
“@context”: “http://schema.org/”,
 “@type”: [“Cemetery”,“TouristAttraction”],
 “name”: “Villers–Bretonneux Australian National Memorial”,

If there is no specific Schema.org type for the thing you are describing, you would just identify it as being a TouristAttraction, using all the properties inherited from Place to describe it as best as you can.

Following the ‘anything can be a tourist attraction principle’ it is perfectly possible for a Person to also be a TouristAttraction.  Take the human statue street performer who dresses up as the Statue of Liberty and stands in Times Square New York on most days (or at least seems to be there every time I visit).  

Using Schema.org he/she can be described as a Person with name, email, jobTitle (Human Statue of Liberty), etc., and in addition as a TouristAttraction.  Sharing this information in Schema.org on a page describing this performer would possibly increase their discoverability to those looking for tourist things in New York.

Public Access

In addition to the properties and examples for TouristAttraction, the Group also proposed a new publicAccess property.  It was felt that this had wider benefit than just for tourism and hence it was added to Place, and hence inherited by TouristAttraction.  publicAccess is a boolean property enabling you to state if a Place is or is not accessible to the public.  There is no assumed default value for this property if omitted from markup.

 

(Tourist image by Lain
Statue image by Bruce Crummy)

 

 

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There have been  discussions in Schema.org Github Issues about the way Organizations their offices, branches and other locations can be marked up.  (The trail is here: #1734)  It started with a question about why the property hasMap was available for a LocalBusiness but not for Organization.  The simple answer being that LocalBusiness inherits the hasMap property from Place, one of its super-types, and not from Organiszation, its other super-type.

As was commented in the thread…

there are plenty of organizations/corporations that have a head office which nobody would consider a LocalBusiness yet for which it would be handy to be able to express it can be found on a map.

The following discussion exposed a lack of clarity in the way to structure descriptions of Organizations and their locations, offices, branches , etc.  It is also clear that the current structure when applied correctly can deliver the functionality required.  This is not to recognise that the descriptions of terms and associated examples could not be improved, and may be helped by some tweaking to the current structure — the discussion continues!

To address that lack of clarity I thought it would be useful to share some examples here.

The LocalBusiness simple case
As a combination of Organization and Place, LocalBusiness gives you most anything you would need to describe a local shop, repair garage, café, etc.  Thus:
<script type=“application/ld+json”>
{
  “@context”: “http://schema.org”,
  “@type”: “LocalBusiness”,
“address”: {
    “@type”: “PostalAddress”,
    “addressLocality”: “Mexico Beach”,
    “addressRegion”: “FL”,
    “streetAddress”: “3102 Highway 98”
  },
  “description”: “A superb collection of fine gifts and clothing to accent your stay in Mexico Beach.”,
  “name”: “Beachwalk Beachwear & Giftware”,
  “telephone”: “850-648-4200”
}
</script>
There are plenty of other properties available, so for example if you have link to a map you could add:
“hasMap”: “https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Beachwalk/@29.94904,-85.4207543,17z”,

If you had other information about the business such as business numbers or tax identifiers you could add:
“vatID”: “1234567890abc”,

What about a group of LocalBusinesses
Also this is a fairly simple case. By using the parentOrganization & subOrganization properties (inherited from the Organiztion super-type) you can build a hierarchy of relationships as complex as you would ever need:
<script type=“application/ld+json”>
{
  “@context”: “http://schema.org”,
  “@type”: “LocalBusiness”,
  “@id”: “http://localshops.example.com/mainBranch”,
  “name”: “Localshops”,
  “subOrganization”: “http://localshops.example.com/cityBranch”
}
</script>
<script type=“application/ld+json”>
{
  “@context”: “http://schema.org”,
  “@type”: “LocalBusiness”,
  “@id”: “http://localshops.example.com/cityBranch”,
  “name”: “Localshops”,
  “parentOrganization”: “http://localshops.example.com/mainBranch”
}
</script>

Location and POS
There are a couple of properties inherited from Organization (location, hasPOS) which may help you link to things that might not be obvious local businesses — the warehouse location for your group of hardware stores, or the beach kiosk for your café for example.


Banks, Libraries, and Hotels
There are many local examples of larger organizations that appear on our high streets, for some of the more common ones there are ready made subtypes of LocalBusiness – BankOrCreditUnion, Library, Hotel, etc.  If you can’t find a suitable one, default to LocalBusiness.

This possibility sometimes causes some confusion.  For instance Wells Fargo, the global finance company, could no way be considered as a local business, however their branch in your local city can indeed be considered as one.  For example:
{
  “@context”: “http://schema.org”,
  “@type”: “BankOrCreditUnion”,
  “name”: “Wells Fargo – Smalltown Branch”,
  “parentOrganization”: “http://wellsfargo.com”
}

Governments, Global Corporations, Online Groups
Picking up on that confusion about non-LocalBusiness-ness, brings me to the prime use of the Organization type.  That prime use in my experience is to describe the legal entity, corporate organiation, cooperation group, government, international body, etc.  From a dictionary definition: “an organized group of people with a particular purpose, such as a business or government department.”

My approach to this would be to describe the organization first — name, description, email, foundingDate, leicode, logo, taxID, etc.  If it has a registered or main address, use the address property, if it has channels for specific contact methods etc, use contactPoint to describe areaServed, contactType etc.

Some of these organizations operate out of various locations — head offices, regional/country based main/local offices, factories, warehouses, distribution centres, research and development centres, laboratories, etc.  The list is a substantial one.  This is where the location property comes into play.

Each of those locations can then be described using a Place type or one of its subtypes…

<script type=“application/ld+json”>
{
  “@context”: “http://schema.org”,
  “@type”: “Organization”,
  “@id”: “http://global-corp.com”,
  “name”: “Global-Corp Company”,
  “location”:  [
   {
    “@type”: “Place”,
    “name”: “Global-Corp Company HQ”,
    “address”: “Future City Development, Main Street, Anytown, NY”,
    “hasMap”: “https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Anytown”
  },
  {
    “@type”: “Place”,
    “name”: “Global-Corp Company Research Laboratory”,
    “address”: “Lab1, Future Park, Anytown, NY”,
    “hasMap”: “https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Anytown”
  }
 ]
}
</script>

This is not a perfect solution, it would be nice to have specific subtypes of Place for Office, Factory, etc. or a placeType property on Place.  I am sure there will be continued discussion on this.   In the meantime what is already available goes a long way towards describing what is needed from Global Corporations to Local Cafés and everything in-between.

(Image: Simon)
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I spend a significant amount of time working with Google folks, especially Dan Brickley, and others on the supporting software, vocabulary contents, and application of Schema.org.  So it is with great pleasure, and a certain amount of relief, I share the announcement of the release of 3.1.

That announcement lists several improvements, enhancements and additions to the vocabulary that appeared in versions 3.0 & 3.1. These include:

  • Health Terms – A significant reorganisation of the extensive collection of medical/health terms, that were introduced back in 2012, into the ‘health-lifesci’ extension, which now contains 99 Types, 179 Properties and 149 Enumeration values.
  • Finance Terms – Following an initiative and work by Financial Industry Business Ontology (FIBO) project (which I have the pleasure to be part of), in support of the W3C Financial Industry Business Ontology Community Group, several terms to improve the capability for describing things such as banks, bank accounts, financial products such as loans, and monetary amounts.
  • Spatial and Temporal and DatasetsCreativeWork now includes spatialCoverage and temporalCoverage which I know my cultural heritage colleagues and clients will find very useful.  Like many enhancements in the Schema.org community, this work came out of a parallel interest, in which  Dataset has received some attention.
  • Hotels and Accommodation – Substantial new vocabulary for describing hotels and accommodation has been added, and documented.
  • Pending Extension – Introduced in version 3.0 a special extension called “pending“, which provides a place for newly proposed schema.org terms to be documented, tested and revised.  The anticipation being that this area will be updated with proposals relatively frequently, in between formal Schema.org releases.
  • How We Work – A HowWeWork document has been added to the site. This comprehensive document details the many aspects of the operation of the community, the site, the vocabulary etc. – a useful way in for casual users through to those who want immerse themselves in the vocabulary its use and development.

For fuller details on what is in 3.1 and other releases, checkout the Releases document.

Hidden Gems

Often working in the depths of the vocabulary, and the site that supports it, I get up close to improvements that on the surface are not obvious which some [of those that immerse themselves] may find interesting that I would like to share:

  • Snappy Performance – The Schema.org site, a Python app hosted on the Google App Engine, is shall we say a very popular site.  Over the last 3-4 releases I have been working on taking full advantage of muti-threaded, multi-instance, memcache, and shared datastore capabilities. Add in page caching imrovements plus an implementation of Etags, and we can see improved site performance which can be best described as snappiness. The only downsides being, to see a new version update you sometimes have to hard reload your browser page, and I have learnt far more about these technologies than I ever thought I would need!
  • Data Downloads – We are often asked for a copy of the latest version of the vocabulary so that people can examine it, develop form it, build tools on it, or whatever takes their fancy.  This has been partially possible in the past, but now we have introduced (on a developers page we hope to expand with other useful stuff in the future – suggestions welcome) a download area for vocabulary definition files.  From here you can download, in your favourite format (Triples, Quads, JSON-LD, Turtle), files containing the core vocabulary, individual extensions, or the whole vocabulary.  (Tip: The page displays the link to the file that will always return the latest version.)
  • Data Model Documentation – Version 3.1 introduced updated contents to the Data Model documentation page, especially in the area of conformance.  I know from working with colleagues and clients, that it is sometimes difficult to get your head around Schema.org’s use of Multi-Typed Entities (MTEs) and the ability to use a Text, or a URL, or Role for any property value.  It is good to now have somewhere to point people when they question such things.
  • Markdown – This is a great addition for those enhancing, developing and proposing updates to the vocabulary.  The rdfs:comment section of term definitions are now passed through a Markdown processor.  This means that any formatting or links to be embedded in term description do not have to be escaped with horrible coding such as &amp; and &gt; etc.  So for example a link can be input as [The Link](http://example.com/mypage) and italic text would be input as *italic*.  The processor also supports WikiLinks style links, which enables the direct linking to a page within the site so [[CreativeWork]] will result in the user being taken directly to the CreativeWork page via a correctly formatted link.   This makes the correct formatting of type descriptions a much nicer experience, as it does my debugging of the definition files. Winking smile

I could go on, but won’t  – If you are new to Schema.org, or very familiar, I suggest you take a look.

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democracy Two, on the surface, totally unconnected posts – yet the the same message.  Well that’s how they seem to me anyway.

Post 1The Problem With Wikidata from Mark Graham writing in the Atlantic.

wikimedia When I reported the announcement of Wikidata by Denny Vrandecic at the Semantic Tech & Business Conference in Berlin in February,  I was impressed with the ambition to bring together all the facts from all the different language versions of Wikipedia in a central Wikidata instance with a single page per entity. These single pages will draw together all references to the entities and engage with a sustainable community to manage this machine-readable resource.   This data would then be used to populate the info-boxes of all versions of Wikipedia in addition to being an open resource of structured data for all.

In his post Mark raises concerns that this approach could result in the loss of the diversity of opinion currently found in the diverse Wikipedias:

It is important that different communities are able to create and reproduce different truths and worldviews. And while certain truths are universal (Tokyo is described as a capital city in every language version that includes an article about Japan), others are more messy and unclear (e.g. should the population of Israel include occupied and contested territories?).

He also highlights issues about the unevenness or bias of contributors to Wikipedia:

We know that Wikipedia is a highly uneven platform. We know that not only is there not a lot of content created from the developing world, but there also isn’t a lot of content created about the developing world. And we also, even within the developed world, a majority of edits are still made by a small core of (largely young, white, male, and well-educated) people. For instance, there are more edits that originate in Hong Kong than all of Africa combined; and there are many times more edits to the English-language article about child birth by men than women.

A simplistic view of what Wikidata is attempting to do could be a majority-rules filter on what is correct data, where low volume opinions are drowned out by that majority.  If Wikidata is successful in it’s aims, it will not only become the single source for info-box data in all versions of Wilkipedia, but it will take over the mantle currently held by Dbpedia as the de faco link-to place for identifiers and associated data on the Web of Data and the wider Web.

I share some of his concerns, but also draw comfort from some of the things Denny said in Berlin –  “WikiData will not define the truth, it will collect the references to the data….  WikiData created articles on a topic will point to the relevant Wikipedia articles in all languages.”  They obviously intend to capture facts described in different languages, the question is will they also preserve the local differences in assertion.  In a world where we still can not totally agree on the height of our tallest mountain, we must be able to take account of and report differences of opinion.

Post 2Danbri has moved on – should we follow? by a former colleague Phil Archer.

schema-org1 The Danbri in question is Dan Brickley, one of the original architects of the Semantic Web, now working for Google in Schema.org.  Dan presented at an excellent Semantic Web Meetup, which I attended at the BBC Academy a couple of weeks back.  This was a great event.  I recommend investing in the time to watch the videos of Dan and all the other speakers.

Phil picked out a section of Dan’s presentation for comment:

In the RDF community, in the Semantic Web community, we’re kind of polite, possibly too polite, and we always try to re-use each other’s stuff. So each schema maybe has 20 or 30 terms, and… schema.org has been criticised as maybe a bit rude, because it does a lot more it’s got 300 classes, 300 properties but that makes things radically simpler for people deploying it. And that’s frankly what we care about right now, getting the stuff out there. But we also care about having attachment points to other things…

Then reflecting on current practice in Linked Data he went on to postulate:

… best practice for the RDF community…  …i.e. look at existing vocabularies, particularly ones that are already widely used and stable, and re-use as much as you can. Dublin Core, FOAF – you know the ones to use.

Except schema.org doesn’t.

schema.org has its own term for name, family name and given name which I chose not to use at least partly out of long term loyalty to Dan. But should that affect me? Or you? Is it time to put emotional attachments aside and move on from some of the old vocabularies and at least consider putting more effort into creating a single big vocabulary that covers most things with specialised vocabularies to handle the long tail?

As the question in the title of his post implies, should we move on and start adopting, where applicable, terms from the large and extending Schema.org vocabulary when modelling and publishing our data.  Or should we stick with the current collection of terms from suitable smaller vocabularies.

One of the common issues when people first get to grips with creating Linked Data is what terms from which vocabularies do I use for my data, and where do I find out.  I have watched the frown skip across several people’s faces when you first tell them that foaf:name is a good attribute to use for a person’s name in a data set that has nothing to do with friends or friends of friends. It is very similar to the one they give you when you suggest that it may also be good for something that isn’t even a person.

As Schema.org grows and, enticed by the obvious SEO benefits in the form of Rich Snippets, becomes rapidly adopted by a community far greater than the Semantic Web and Linked Data communities, why would you not default to using terms in their vocabulary?   Another former colleague, David Wood Tweeted  No in answer to Phil’s question – I think this in retrospect may seem a King Canute style proclamation.  If my predictions are correct, it won’t be too long before we are up to our ears in structured data on the web, most of it marked up using terms to be found at schema.org.

You may think that I am advocating the death, and replacement by Schema.org, of all the vocabularies well known, and obscure, in use today – far from it.   When modelling your [Linked] data, start by using terms that have been used before, then build on terms more specific to your domain and finally you may have to create your own vocabulary/ontology.  What I am saying is that as Schema.org becomes established, it’s growing collection of 300+ terms will become the obvious start point in that process.

OK a couple of interesting posts, but where is the similar message and connection?  I see it as democracy of opinion.  Not the democracy of the modern western political system, where we have a stand up shouting match every few years followed by a fairly stable period where the rules are enforced by one view.  More the traditional, possibly romanticised, view of democracy where the majority leads the way but without disregarding the opinions of the few.  Was it the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire who said: ”I may hate your views, but I am willing to lay down my life for your right to express them” – a bit extreme when discussing data and ontologies, but the spirit is right.

Once the majority of general data on the web becomes marked up as schema.org – it would be short sighted to ignore the gravitational force it will exert in the web of data if you want your data to be linked to and found.  However, it will be incumbent on those behind Schema.org to maintain their ambition to deliver easy linking to more specialised vocabularies via their extension points.  This way the ‘how’ of data publishing should become simpler, more widespread, and extensible.   On the ‘what’ side of the the [structured] data publishing equation, the Wikidata team has an equal responsible to not only publish the majority definition of facts, but also clearly reflect the views of minorities – not a simple balancing act as often those with the more extreme views have the loudest voices.

Main image via democracy.org.au.
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IMG_0256 So I need to hang up some tools in my shed.  I need some bent hook things – I think.  Off to the hardware store in which I search for the fixings section.  Following the signs hanging from the roof, my search is soon directed to a rack covered in lots of individual packets and I spot the thing I am looking for, but what’s this – they come in lots of different sizes.  After a bit of localised searching I grab the size I need, but wait – in the next rack there are some specialised tool hanging devices.  Square hooks, long hooks, double-prong hooks, spring clips, an amazing choice!  Pleased with what I discovered and selected I’m soon heading down the isle when my attention is drawn to a display of shelving with hidden brackets – just the thing for under the TV in the lounge.  I grab one of those and head for the checkout before my credit card regrets me discovering anything else.

We all know the library ‘browse’ experience.  Head for a particular book, and come away with a different one on the same topic that just happened to be on a nearby shelf, or even a totally different one that you ‘found’ on the recently returned books shelf.

An ambition for the web is to reflect and assist what we humans do in the real world.  Search has only brought us part of the way. By identifying key words in web page text, and links between those pages, it makes a reasonable stab at identifying things that might be related to the keywords we enter.

As I commented recently, Semantic Search messages coming from Google indicate that they are taking significant steps towards the ambition.   By harvesting Schema.org described metadata embedded in html, by webmasters enticed by Rich Snippets, and building on the 12 million entity descriptions in Freebase they are amassing the fuel for a better search engine.  A search engine [that] will better match search queries with a database containing hundreds of millions of “entities”—people, places and things.

How much closer will this better, semantic, search get to being able to replicate online the scenario I shared at the start of this post.  It should do a better job of relating our keywords to the things that would be of interest, not just the pages about them.  Having a better understanding of entities should help with the Paris Hilton problem, or at least help us navigate around such issues.  That better understanding of entities, and related entities, should enable the return of related relevant results that did not contain our keywords.

But surely there is more to it than that.  Yes there is, but it is not search – it is discovery.  As in my scenario above, humans do not only search for things.  We search to get ourselves to a start point for discovery.  I searched for an item in the fixings section in the hardware store or a book in the the library I then inspected related items on the rack and the shelf to discover if there was anything more appropriate for my needs nearby.  By understanding things and the [semantic] relationships between them, systems could help us with that discovery phase. It is the search engine’s job to expose those relationships but the prime benefit will emerge when the source web sites start doing it too.

BBC Nature - Aardvark videos, news and facts Take what is still one of my favourite sites – BBC wildlife.  Take a look at the Lion page, found by searching for lions in Google. Scroll down a bit and you will see listed the lion’s habitats and behaviours.  These are all things or concepts related to the lion.  Follow the link to the flooded grassland habitat, where you will find lists of flora and fauna that you will find there, including the aardvark which is nocturnal.  Such follow-your-nose navigation around the site supports the discovery method of finding things that I describe.  In such an environment serendipity is only a few clicks away.

There are two sides to the finding stuff coin – Search and Discovery.  Humans naturally do both, systems and the web are only just starting to move beyond search only.  This move is being enabled by the constantly growing data that is describing things and their relationships – Linked Data.  A growth stimulated by initiatives such as Schema.org, and Google providing quick return incentives, such as Rich Snippets & SEO goodness, for folks to publish structured data for reasons other than a futuristic Semantic Web.

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GoogleBlueBalls Today’s Wall Street Journal gives us an insight in to the makeover underway in the Google search department.

Over the next few months, Google’s search engine will begin spitting out more than a list of blue Web links. It will also present more facts and direct answers to queries at the top of the search-results page.

They are going about this by developing the search engine [that] will better match search queries with a database containing hundreds of millions of “entities”—people, places and things—which the company has quietly amassed in the past two years.

The ‘amassing’ got a kick start in 2010 with the Metaweb acquisition that brought Freebase and it’s 12 Million entities into the Google fold.  This is now continuing with harvesting of html embedded, schema.org encoded, structured data that is starting to spread across the web.

The encouragement for webmasters and SEO folks to go to the trouble of inserting this information in to their html is the prospect of a better result display for their page – Rich Snippets.  A nice trade-off from Google – you embed the information we want/need for a better search and we will give you  better results.

The premise of what Google are are up to is that it will deliver better search.  Yes this should be true, however I would suggest that the major benefit to us mortal Googlers will be better results.  The search engine should appear to have greater intuition as to what we are looking for, but what we also should get is more information about the things that it finds for us.  This is the step-change.  We will be getting, in addition to web page links, information about things – the location, altitude, average temperature or salt content of a lake. Whereas today you would only get links to the lake’s visitors centre or a Wikipedia page.

Another example quoted in the article:

…people who search for a particular novelist like Ernest Hemingway could, under the new system, find a list of the author’s books they could browse through and information pages about other related authors or books, according to people familiar with the company’s plans. Presumably Google could suggest books to buy, too.

Many in the library community may note this with scepticism, and as being a too simplistic approach to something that they have been striving towards for for many years with only limited success.  I would say that they should be helping the search engine supplier(s) do this right and be part of the process.  There is great danger that, for better or worse, whatever Google does will make the library search interface irrelevant.

As an advocate for linked data, it is great to see the benefits of defining entities and describing the relationships between them being taken seriously.   I’m not sure I buy into the term ‘Semantic Search’ as a name for what will result.  I tend more towards ‘Semantic Discovery’ which is more descriptive of where the semantics kick in – in the relationship between a searched for thing and it’s attributes and other entities.  However I’ve been around far too long to get hung up about labels.

Whilst we are on the topic of labels, I am in danger of stepping in to the almost religious debate about the relative merits of microdata and RDFa as the encoding method for embedding the schema.org.  Google recognises both, both are ugly for humans to hand code, and web masters should not have to care.  Once the CMS suppliers get up to speed in supplying the modules to automatically embed this stuff, as per this Drupal module, they won’t have to care.

I welcome this.  Yet it is only a symptom of something much bigger and game-changing as I postulated last month A Data 7th Wave is Approaching.

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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.
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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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BBC Sport - Sport The BBC have been at the forefront of the real application of Linked Data techniques and technologies for some time.  It has been great to see them evolve from early experiments by BBC Backstage working with Talis to publish music and programmes data as RDF –  to see what would happen.

Their Wildlife Finder that drives the stunning BBC Nature site has been at the centre of many of my presentations promoting Linked Data over the last couple of years.  It not only looks great, but it also demonstrates wonderfully the follow-your-nose navigation around a site that naturally occurs if you let the underlying data model show you the way.

The BBC team have been evolving their approach to delivering agile, effective, websites in an efficient way by building on Linked Data foundations sector by sector – wildlife, news, music, World Cup 2010, and now in readiness for London 2012 – the whole sport experience.  Since the launch a few days ago, the main comment seems to be that it is ‘very yellow’, which it is.  Not much reference to the innovative approach under the hood – as it should be.  If you can see the technology, you have got it wrong.

In an interesting post on the launch Ben Gallop shares some history about the site and background on the new version. With a site which gets around 15 million unique visitors a week they have a huge online audience to serve. Cait O’Riodan in a more technical post talks about the efficiency gains of taking the semantic web technologies approach:

Doing more with less
One of the reasons why we are able to cover such a wide range of sports is that we have invested in technology which allows our journalists to spend more time creating great content and less time managing that content.

In the past when a journalist wrote a story they would have to place that story on every relevant section of the website.

A story about Arsenal playing Manchester United, for example, would have to be placed manually on the home page, the Football page, the premier league page, the Arsenal page and the Manchester United page – a very time consuming and labour intensive process.

Now the journalists tell the system what the story is about and that story is automatically placed on all the relevant parts of the site.

We are using semantic web technologies to do this, an exciting evolution of a project begun with the Vancouver Winter Games and extended with the BBC’s 2010 World Cup website. It will really come into its own during the Olympics this summer.

It is that automatic placement, and linking, of stories that leads to the natural follow-your-nose navigation around the site.  If previous incarnations of the BBC using this approach are anything to go by, there will also be SEO benefits as well – as I have discussed previously.

BBC Sport Data Model The data model used under the hood of the Sports site is based upon the Sport Ontology openly published by them.  Check out the vocabulary diagram to see how they have mapped out and modelled the elements of a sporting event, competition, and associated broadcast elements.  A great piece of work from the BBC teams.

In addition to the visual, navigation and efficiency benefits this launch highlights, it also settles the concerns that Linked Data / Semantic Web technologies can not perform.  This site is supporting 15 million unique visitors a week and will probably be supporting a heck of a lot more during the Olympics.  That is real web scale!

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schema-org1The Web has been around for getting on for a couple of decades now, and massive industries have grown up around the magic of making it work for you and your organisation.  Some of it, it has to be said, can be considered snake-oil.  Much of it is the output of some of the best brains on the planet.  Where, on the hit parade of technological revolutions to influence mankind, the Web is placed is oft disputed, but it is definitely up there with fire, steam, electricity, computing, and of course the wheel.  Similar debates, are and will virtually rage, around the hit parade of web features that will in retrospect have been most influential – pick your favourites, http, XML, REST, Flash, RSS, SVG, the URL, the href, CSS, RDF – the list is a long one.

I have observed a pattern as each of the successful new enhancements to the web have been introduced, and then generally adopted.  Firstly there is a disconnect between the proponents of the new approach/technology/feature and the rest of us.  The former split their passions between focusing on the detailed application, rules, and syntax of it’s use and; broadcasting it’s worth to the world, not quite understanding why the web masses do not ‘get it’ and adopt it immediately.  This phase is then followed by one of post-hype disillusionment from the creators, especially when others start suggesting simplifications to their baby.  Also at this time back-room adoption by those who find it interesting, but are not evangelistic about it, starts to occur.  The real kick for the web comes from those back-room folks who just use this next thing to deliver stuff and solve problems in a better way.  It is the results of their work that the wider world starts to emulate, so that they can keep up with the pack and remain competitive.  Soon this new feature is adopted by the majority, because all the big boys are using it, and it becomes just part of the tool kit.

A great example of this was RSS.  Not a technological leap but a pragmatic mix of current techniques and technologies mixed in with some lateral thinking and a group of people agreeing to do it in ‘this way’ then sharing it with the world.  As you will see from the Wikipedia page on RSS, the syntax wars raged in the early days – I remember it well 0.9, 0.91, 1.0, 1.1, 2.0- 2.01, etc.  I also remember trying, not always with success, to convince people around me to use it, because it was so simple.  Looking back it is difficult to say exactly when it became mainstream, but this line from Wikipedia gives me a clue: In December 2005, the Microsoft Internet Explorer team and Microsoft Outlook team announced on their blogs that they were adopting the feed icon first used in the Mozilla Firefox browser. In February 2006, Opera Software followed suit.  From then on, the majority of consumers of RSS were not aware of what they were using and it became just one of the web technologies you use to get stuff done.

I am now seeing the pattern starting to repeat itself again, with structured and linked data.  Many, including me, have been evangelising the benefits of web friendly, structured, linked data for some time now – preaching to a crowd that has been slow in growing, but growing it is.   Serious benefit is now being gained by organisations adopting these techniques and technologies, as our selection of case studiesdemonstrate.  They are getting on with it, often with our help, using it to deliver stuff.  We haven’t hit the mainstream yet.  For instance, the SEO folks still need to get their head around the difference between content and data.

Something is stirring around the edge of the Semantic Web/Linked Data community  that has the potential to give structured web enabled data the kick towards mainstream that RSS got when Microsoft adopted the RSS logo and all that came with it.   That something is schema.org, an initiative backed by the heavyweights of the search engine world, Google, Yahoo, and Bing.  For the SEO and web developer folks, schema.org offers a simple attractive proposition – embed some structured data in your html and, via things like Google’s Rich Snippets, we will give you a value added display in our search results.  Result, happy web developers with their sites getting improve listing display.  Result, lots of structured data starting to be published by people that you would have had an impossible task in convincing that it would be a good idea to publish structured data on the web.

I was at Semtech in San Francisco in June, just after schema.org was launched and caused a bit of a stir.  They’ve over simplified the standards that we have been working on for years, dumbing down RDF, diluting the capability, with to small a set of attributes, etc., etc.  When you get under the skin of schema.org, you see that with support for RDFa and supporting RDFa 1.1 lite, they are not that far from the RDF/Linked Data community.

Schema.org should be welcomed as an enabler for getting loads more structured and linked data on the web.  Is their approach now perfect,? No.  Will it influence the development of Linked Data? Yes.  Will the introduction be messy? Yes.  Is it about more than just rich snippets?  Oh yes.  Do the webmasters care at the moment? No.

If you want a friendly insight in to what schema.org is about, I suggest a listen to this month’s Semantic Link podcast, with their guest from Google/schema.org Ramanathan V. Guha.

Now where have I seen that name before? – Oh yes, back on the Wikipedia RSS pageThe basic idea of restructuring information about websites goes back to as early as 1995, when Ramanathan V. Guha and others in Apple Computer’s Advanced Technology Group developed the Meta Content Framework.”  So it probably isn’t just me who is getting a feeling of Déjà vu.

This post was also published on the Talis Consulting Blog
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