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Archive for the ‘Semantic Web’ Category

Reflecting On Openness and the Semantic Web

Posted by Brian Kelly on 12 Apr 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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UK Museums and the Semantic Web Thinktank

Posted by Brian Kelly on 18 Apr 2007


The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded a Thinktank with the remit to engage with a variety of experts on the potential for making use of the Semantic Web in a museum’s context. I attended the launch meeting and the final meeting of the group. One suggestion I (supported by Paul Shabajee) made at the initial meeting was that the group should set up a blog rather than a mailing list as a mechanism for discussion and dissemination. We were therefore very pleased when we found the UK Museums and the Semantic Web blog. This blog provides a very valuable summary of the six meetings held with a variety of experts and the various discussions and shared resources.


Initially I suspect that there was a feeling that various Semantic Web experts would describe the role of Semantic Web standards and technologies such as RDF and OWL. In reality discussions on the difficulties and complexities of Semantic Web technologies were surfaced, and there were debates on its applicability, especially for the smaller museums, and the timeliness of the debate, especially in light of the wider interests in Web 2.0 in a cultural heritage (and wider) context.

My feeling is that museums should be experimenting with and debating the issues associated with use blogs and wikis, opening up access to their data and making use of popular services such as YouTube, Flickr and iTunes for maximising access to their resources, in parallel with discussion about legal issues, sustainability of services, etc. Whilst development programmes to provide services based on Semantic Web technologies should be left to the research community until the benefits of this approach have been proven and the technologies and standards have matured.

Further Thoughts

Ross Parry and Jon Pratty gave an update on the Semantic Web Thinktank at the Museums and The Web 2007 conference. Jacco van Ossenbruggen (CWI, Amsterdam) provided some fresh insight into the work of the Thinktank – and something that emerged from the discussions was the different areas of interests of the members of the Thinktank. The focus of my interests is in the provision of services to the end user community; others, however, were more interested in developments to the internal processes within museums, including enhancements to systems used to manage museum documentation. It then dawned on me that a Semantic Web approach may be relevant in updating the systems used to manage documentation of museums collections from an architecture based on early database principles to a Semantic Web environment. An advantage in this context is the widespread usage across the sector of the SPECTRUM standard, so there is not the competition of a variety of different approaches that we find in services targetted directly at end users of museum services.

The meeting at the Museums and the Web 2007 conference was therefore useful in developing my thinking in this area – and many thanks to Jacco for his contributions to the discussion. There will still, however, be a need to manage expectations and to develop the risk assessment and risk management approaches which will be needed in any new areas which are likely to require significant investment in resources.

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