The role of Role in

This post is about an unusual, but very useful, aspect of the vocabulary — the Role type.

schema-org1 is basically a simple vocabulary for describing stuff, on the web.  Embed it in your html and the search engines will pick it up as they crawl, and add it to their structured data knowledge graphs.  They even give you three formats to chose from — Microdata, RDFa, and JSON-LD — when doing the embedding.  I’m assuming, for this post, that the benefits of being part of the Knowledge Graphs that underpin so called Semantic Search, and hopefully triggering some Rich Snippet enhanced results display as a side benefit, are self evident.

The vocabulary itself is comparatively easy to apply once you get your head around it — find the appropriate Type (Person, CreativeWork, Place, Organization, etc.) for the thing you are describing, check out the properties in the documentation and code up the ones you have values for.  Ideally provide a URI (URL in for a property that references another thing, but if you don’t have one a simple string will do.

There are a few strangenesses, that hit you when you first delve into using the vocabulary.  For example, there is no problem in describing something that is of multiple types — a LocalBussiness is both an Organisation and a Place.  This post is about another unusual, but very useful, aspect of the vocabulary — the Role type.

At first look at the documentation, Role looks like a very simple type with a handful of properties.  On closer inspection, however, it doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the vocabulary.  That is because it is capable of fitting almost anywhere.  Anywhere there is a relationship between one type and another, that is.  It is a special case type that allows a relationship, say between a Person and an Organization, to be given extra attributes.  Some might term this as a form of annotation.

So what need is this satisfying you may ask.  It must be a significant need to cause the creation of a special case in the vocabulary.  Let me walk through a case, that is used in a Blog post, to explain a need scenario and how Role satisfies that need.

Starting With American Football

Say you are describing members of an American Football Team.  Firstly you would describe the team using the SportsOrganization type, giving it a name, sport, etc. Using RDFa:

Then describe a player using a Person type, providing name, gender, etc.:

Now lets relate them together by adding an athlete relationship to the Person description:


Let’s take a look of the data structure we have created using Turtle – not a html markup syntax but an excellent way to visualise the data structures isolated from the html:

So we now have Chucker Roberts described as an athlete on the Touchline Gods team.  The obvious question then is how do we describe the position he plays in the team.  We could have extended the SportsOrganization type with a property for every position, but scaling that across every position for every team sport type would have soon ended up with far more properties than would have been sensible, and beyond the maintenance scope of a generic vocabulary such as

This is where Role comes in handy.  Regardless of the range defined for any property in, it is acceptable to provide a Role as a value.  The convention then is to use a property with the same property name, that the Role is a value for, to then remake the connection to the referenced thing (in this case the Person).  In simple terms we have have just inserted a Role type between the original two descriptions.


This indirection has not added much you might initially think, but Role has some properties of its own (startDate, endDate, roleName) that can help us qualify the relationship between the SportsOrganization and the athlete (Person).  For the field of organizations there is a subtype of Role (OrganizationRole) which allows the relationship to be qualified slightly more.



and in Turtle:

Beyond American Football

So far I have just been stepping through the example provided in the blog post on this.  Let’s take a look at an example from another domain – the one I spend my life immersed in – libraries.

There are many relationships between creative works that libraries curate and describe (books, articles, theses, manuscripts, etc.) and people & organisations that are not covered adequately by the properties available (author, illustrator,  contributor, publisher, character, etc.) in CreativeWork and its subtypes.  By using Role, in the same way as in the sports example above,  we have the flexibility to describe what is needed.

Take a book (How to be Orange: an alternative Dutch assimilation course) authored by Gregory Scott Shapiro, that has a preface written by Floor de Goede. As there is no writerOfPreface property we can use, the best we could do is to is to put Floor de Goede in as a contributor.  However by using Role can qualify the contribution role that he played to be that of the writer of preface.


In Turtle:

and RDFa:

You will note in this example I have made use of URLs, to external resources – VIAF for defining the Persons and the Library of Congress relator codes – instead of defining them myself as strings.  I have also linked the book to it’s Work definition so that someone exploring the data can discover other editions of the same work.

Do I always use Role?
In the above example I relate a book to two people, the author and the writer of preface.  I could have linked to the author via another role with the roleName being ‘Author’ or <>.  Although possible, it is not a recommended approach.  Wherever possible use the properties defined for a type.  This is what data consumers such as search engines are going to be initially looking for.

One last example

To demonstrate the flexibility of using the Role type here is the markup that shows a small diversion in my early career:

This demonstrates the ability of Role to be used to provide added information about most relationships between entities, in this case the employee relationship. Often Role itself is sufficient, with the ability for the vocabulary to be extended with subtypes of Role to provide further use-case specific properties added.

Whenever possible use URLs for roleName
In the above example, it is exceedingly unlikely that there is a citeable definition on the web, I could link to for the roleName. So it is perfectly acceptable to just use the string “Keyboards Roadie”.  However to help the search engines understand unambiguously what role you are describing, it is always better to use a URL.  If you can’t find one, for example in the Library of Congress Relater Codes, or in Wikidata, consider creating one yourself in Wikipedia or Wikidata for others to share. Another spin-off benefit for using URIs (URLs) is that they are language independent, regardless of the language of the labels in the data  the URI always means the same thing.  Sources like Wikidata often have names and descriptions for things defined in multiple languages, which can be useful in itself.

Final advice
This very flexible mechanism has many potential uses when describing your resources in There is always a danger in over using useful techniques such as this. Be sure that there is not already a way within Schema, or worth proposing to those that look after the vocabulary, before using it.

Good luck in your role in describing your resources and the relationships between them using

Google Sunsets Freebase – Good News For Wikidata?

Google announced yesterday that it is the end of the line for Freebase – will this be good for Wikidata?

fb Google announced yesterday that it is the end of the line for Freebase, and they have “decided to help transfer the data in Freebase to Wikidata, and in mid-2015 we’ll wind down the Freebase service as a standalone project”.wd

As well as retiring access for data creation and reading, they are also retiring API access – not good news for those who have built services on top of them.  The timetable they shared for the move is as follows:

Before the end of March 2015
– We’ll launch a Wikidata import review tool
– We’ll announce a transition plan for the Freebase Search API & Suggest Widget to a Knowledge Graph-based solution

March 31, 2015
– Freebase as a service will become read-only
– The website will no longer accept edits
– We’ll retire the MQL write API

June 30, 2015
– We’ll retire the Freebase website and APIs[3]
– The last Freebase data dump will remain available, but developers should check out the Wikidata dump

The crystal ball gazers could probably have predicted a move such as this when Google employed, the then lead of Wikidata, Denny Vrandečić a couple of years back. However they could have predicted a load of other outcomes too. 😉

In the long term this should be good news for Wikidata, but in the short term they may have a severe case of indigestion as they attempt to consume data that will, in some estimations, treble the size of Wikidata adding about 40 million Freebase facts into its current 12 million.  It won’t be a simple copy job.

Loading Freebase into Wikidata as-is wouldn’t meet the Wikidata community’s guidelines for citation and sourcing of facts — while a significant portion of the facts in Freebase came from Wikipedia itself, those facts were attributed to Wikipedia and not the actual original non-Wikipedia sources. So we’ll be launching a tool for Wikidata community members to match Freebase assertions to potential citations from either Google Search or our Knowledge Vault, so these individual facts can then be properly loaded to Wikidata.

There are obvious murmurings on the community groups about things such as how strict the differing policies for confirming facts are, and how useful the APIs are. There are bound to be some hiccups on this path – more of an arranged marriage than one of love at first sight between the parties.

I have spent many a presentation telling the world how Google have based their Knowledge Graph on the data from Freebase, which they got when acquiring Metaweb in 2010.

So what does this mean for the Knowledge Graph?  I believe it is a symptom of the Knowledge Graph coming of age as a core feature of the Google infrastructure.  They have used Freebase to seed the Knowledge Graph, but now that seed has grow into a young tree fed by the twin sources of Google search logs, and the rich nutrients delivered by structured data embedded in millions of pages on the web. Following the analogy, the seed of Freebase, as a standalone project/brand, just doesn’t fit anymore with the core tree of knowledge that Google is creating and building.  No coincidence that  they’ll “announce a transition plan for the Freebase Search API & Suggest Widget to a Knowledge Graph-based solution”.

As for Wikidata, if the marriage of data is successful, it will establish it as the source for open structured data on the web and for facts within Wikipedia.

As the live source for information that will often be broader than the Wikipedia it sprang from, I suspect Wikidata’s rise will spur the eventual demise of that other source of structured data from Wikipedia – DBpedia.   How in the long term will it be able to compete, as a transformation of occasional dumps of Wikipedia, with a live evolving broader source?   Such a demise would be a slow process however – DBpedia has been the de facto link source for such a long time, its URIs are everywhere!

However you see the eventual outcomes for Frebase, Wikidata, and DBpedia, this is big news for structured data on the web.

Who Will Be Mostly Right – Wikidata,

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

Post 1 – The Problem With Wikidata from Mark Graham writing in the Atlantic. Post 2 – Danbri has moved on – should we follow? by a former colleague Phil Archer.

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  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… 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 doesn’t. 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 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 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

You may think that I am advocating the death, and replacement by, 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 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 – 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 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

WikiData – Announcing Wikipedia’s Next Big Thing

wikimedia One of the more eagerly awaited presentations at the Semantic Tech & Business Conference in Berlin today was a late addition to the program from Denny Vrandecic.  With the prominence of Dbpedia in the Linked Open Data Cloud, anything new from Wikipedia with data in it was bound to attract attention, and we were not disappointed.

P1000770Denny started by telling us that from March he would be moving to Berlin to work for the Wikimedia Foundation on WikiData.

He then went on to explain that the rich Wikipedia resource may have much of the world’s information but does not have all the answers.  There vast differences in coverage between language versions for instance.  Also it is not good at answering questions such as what are the 10 largest cities with a female mayor. You get some cities back but most if not all of them do not have a female mayor.   One way to address this issue, that has proliferated in Wikipedia is Lists.  The problem with lists is that there are so many of them, in several languages, with often duplicates, and then there are the array of lists of lists.

We must accept Wikipedia doesn’t have all the answers – humans can read articles but computers can not understand the meaning.  WikiData created articles on a topic will point to the relevant wikipedia articles in all languages.

Dbpedia has been a great success at extracting information from Wikipedia info-boxes and publishing it as data, but it is not editable.  WikiData will turn that model on it’s head, by providing an editable environment for data that will then be used to automatically populate the info-boxes.  WikiData will also reference secondary databases. For example indicating that the CIA World Factbook provides a value for something.

WikiData will not define the truth, it will collect the references to the data.

Denny listed the objectives of the WikiData project to be:

  • Provide a database of the world’s knowledge that anyone can edit
  • Collect references and quotes for millions of data items
  • Engage a sustainable community that collects data from everywhere in a machine-readable way
  • Increase the quality and lower the maintenance costs of Wikipedia and related projects
  • Deliver software and community best practices enabling others to engage in projects of data collection and provisioning

WikiData phase 1, which includes creating one WikiData page for each Wikipedia entity which then lists representations in each language.  Those individual language versions will then pull the language links from WikiData, should be complete in the summer.

The second phase will include the centralisation of data vales for info-boxes and then have the Wikipedias populate their info-boxes from WikiData.

The final phase will be to enable inline queries against WikiData to be made from Wikipedias with the results surfaced in several formats.

Denny did not provide a schedule for the second an third phases.

This is all in addition to the ability to provide freely, re-usable, machine-readable access to the world’s data.

The beginnings of an interesting project from WikiMedia that could radically influence the data landscape – well woth watching as it progresses.