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Archive for April 12th, 2008

Reflecting On Openness and the Semantic Web

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 12 April 2008

The printed copy of the proceedings of the Museums and the Web 2008 conference divides the papers into four sections: Institutions, User Participation, Web Space and Reflecting. The concluding section, on Reflecting, contains only two papers: one on Semantic Dissonance: Do We Need (And Do We Understand) The Semantics Web? by Ross Parry (University of Leicester), Nick Poole (The Collections Trust) and Jon Pratty (Culture 24) and my paper on What Does Openness Mean To The Museum Community?, co-authored by Mike Ellis (Eduserv) and Ross Gardler (JISC OSS Watch), which I’ve posted about recently.

It is pleasing that the two papers which reflect on the challenges and opportunities posed by recent Web developments have been written by a combination of researchers and practitioners based in the UK.

Ross Parry’s paper is based on a series of workshops funded by the AHRC which were held at various locations in the UK during 2006 and 2007. The paper describes discussions which have taken place recently in the UK in which it has been suggested that “museum data with good URIs, consistent metadata and simple tagging are seen to provide a vitally stable infrastructure on which to build“.

To this list I would add the importance of providing data which is free from restrictive licence conditions and which is exposed for reuse by other applications which can exploit the rich semantic data.

But stable URIs, consistent metadata, simple tagging, open data and machine interfaces – isn’t this what Web 2.0 is about? From one perspective, people may regard Web 2.0 as shorthand for referring to blog, wiki and RSS applications. But Tim O’Reilly’s original Web 2.0 diagram makes it clear that Web 2.0 is broader than this.

In a chapter entitled ‘‘If it quacks like a duck…’ – developments in search technologies‘ in a recent Becta Research Report on Emerging Technologies for Learning Volume 3 (2008) (PDF version of chapter) my colleague Emma Tonkin argues that:

By “semantic”, Berners-Lee means nothing more than “machine processable”. The choice of nomenclature is a primary cause of confusion on both sides of the debate. It is unfortunate that the effort was not named “the machine processable web” instead.

I think Emma is right: the term Semantic Web has caused much confusion. But if the Semantic Web is really a machine processable Web in which clean URIs can help to provide programatic access to structured data, then isn’t this very close to what Web 2.0 may be considered to be about?

And can you claim to be in favour of the Semantic Web if you are critical of the architectural aspects of Web 2.0? Or, to put it another way, isn’t engagement with Web 2.0 a needed stepping stone towards the Semantic Web? And won’t we find that those who come out with reasons for not engaging with Web 2.0, will come out with a similar set of reasons for not engaging with the Semantic Web?

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