Tag Archives: Australian Government

Taxonomies 1, Semantic Web (and Linked Data) 0

I’m not a big fan of Semantic Web{{1}}. For something that has been around for just over ten years — and which has been aggressively promoted by the likes of Tim Berners-Lee{{2}} — very little real has come of it.

Taxonomies, on the other hand, are going gangbusters, with solutions like GovDirect{{3}} showing that there is a real need for this sort of data-relationship driven approach{{4}}. Given this need, if the flexibility provided by Semantic Web (and more recently, Linked Data{{5}}) was really needed, then we would have expected someone to have invested in building significant solutions which use the technology.

While the technology behind Semantic Web and Linked Data is interesting, it seems that most people don’t think it’s worth the effort.

All this makes me think: the future of data management and standardisation is ad hoc, with communities or vendors scratching specific itches, rather than formal, top-down, theory driven approaches such as Semantic Web and Linked Data, or even other formal standardisation efforts of old.

[[2]]Tim Berners-Lee on Twitter[[2]]
[[4]]Peter Williams on the The Power of Taxonomies @ the Australian Government’s Standard Business Reporting Initiative[[4]]

The technologies behind the likes of Semantic Web and Linked Data have a long heritage. You can trace them back to at least the seventies when ontology and logic driven approaches to data management faced off against relational methodologies. Relational methods won that round — just ask Oracle or the nearest DBA.

That said, there has been a small number of interesting solutions built in the intervening years. I was involved in a few in one of my past lives{{6}}, and I’ve heard of more than a few built by colleagues and friends. The majority of these solutions used ontology management as a way to streamline service configuration, and therefor ease the pain of business change. Rather than being forced to rebuild a bunch of services, you could change some definitions, and off you go.


What we haven’t seen is a well placed Semantic Web SPARQL{{7}} query which makes all the difference. I’m still waiting for that travel website where I can ask for a holiday, somewhere warm, within my budget, and without too many tourists who use beach towels to reserve lounge chairs at six in the morning; and get a sensible result.

[[7]]SPARQL @ w3.org[[7]]

The flexibility which we could justify in the service delivery solutions just doesn’t appear to be justifiable in the data-driven solution. A colleague showed my a Semantic Web solution that consumed a million or so pounds worth of tax payer money to build a semantic-driven database for a small art collection. All this sophisticated technology would allow the user to ask all sorts of sophisticated questions, if they could navigate the (necessarily) complicated user interface, or if they could construct an even more daunting SPARQL query. A more pragmatic approach would have built a conventional web application — one which would easily satisfy 95% of users — for a fraction of the cost.

When you come down to it, the sort of power and flexibility provided by Semantic Web and Linked Data could only be used by a tiny fraction of the user population. For most people, something which gets them most of the way (with a little bit of trial and error) is good enough. Fire and forget. While the snazzy solution with the sophisticated technology might demo well (making it good TED{{8}} fodder), it’s not going to improve the day-to-day travail for most of the population.


Then we get solutions like GovDirect. As the website puts it:

GovDirect® facilitates reporting to government agencies such as the Australian Tax Office via a single, secure online channel enabling you to reduce the complexity and cost of meeting your reporting obligations to government.

which make it, essentially, a Semantic Web solution. Except its not, as GovDirect is built on XBRL{{9}} with a cobbled together taxonomy.

[[9]]eXtensible Business Reporting Language[[9]]

Taxonomy driven solutions, such as GovDirect might not offer the power and sophistication of a Semantic Web driven solution, but they do get the job done. These taxonomies are also more likely to be ad hoc — codifying a vendor’s solution, or accreted whilst on the job — than the result of some formal, top down ontology{{10}} development methodology (such as those buried in the Semantic Web and Linked Data).

[[10]]Ontology defined in Wikipedia[[10]]

Take Salesforce.com{{11}} as an example. If we were to develop a taxonomy to exchange CRM data, then the most likely source will be other venders reverse engineering{{12}} whatever Salesforce.com is doing. The driver, after all, is to enable clients to get their data out of Salesforce.com. Or the source might be whatever a government working group publishes, given a government’s dominant role in its geography. By extension we can also see the end of the formal standardisation efforts of old, as they devolve into the sort of information frameworks represented by XBRL, which accrete attributes as needed.

[[12]]Reverse engineering defined in Wikipedia[[12]]

The general trend we’re seeing is a move away from top-down, tightly defined and structured definitions of data interchange formats, as they’re replaced by bottom-up, looser definitions.

The NBN wants to be free

There’s been a lot of discussion on what Austalia’s national broadband network (NBN) will cost when it’s finally delivered to consumers. How much will we need to stump up to take part in today’s knowledge economy? Most cost recovery models have ISPs charging monthly fees of over $200, which is a lot more than the $50 per month most of us are used to paying. Who’s gonna pay that? A lot of folk have been pointing out the folly of forcing through a broadband network that few of us can afford, let alone be bothered to pay for.

Is this missing the point though? What if the government’s intention is to make the NBN free (or close enough to as to make no difference)? Much like most other public infrastructure such as roads. There’s precedents for this, from the New Deal though the recent government report on supporting innovation and the fact that the government is sitting on a large pile of money that they intend to spend.

The global financial crunch has had a dramatic impact on everyone’s lives, though Australia has been in the lucky position of avoiding the worst of the down turn. Australia is even the first large, rich country to raise interest rates on the back of the world recovery. Discussion has now turned to the nature of this recovery: will it be V or W shaped? Most of the smart money (including the RBA’s) seems to be settling on W shaped, with the potential for unemployment to rise in the short to mid term. The war chest the government accumulated to fight recession is still quite full, and the government has stated that it plans to stick to the large stimulus plan announced earlier in the year.

Recessions often to bring governments to think about major infrastructure projects. The U.S. went down this route mid century, with Congress having a few attempts at chartering a “National System of Interstate Highways” before Eisenhower made it a reality. I haven’t seen a figure for the investment required, but I expect it to be scary. The impact, though, was profound on the U.S. in general, and the economy in particular. Through the years, various estimates have been made of the contribution of the interstate highway system to the economy, generally finding that the interstate highway system has more than paid for itself in improved commercial productivity, with each dollar of investment in highways producing an annual reduction in product costs of 23.4 cents. It is estimated that the interstate highway system is now producing approximately $14 billion. All this from something you can use for free.

Fast forward to the future, and we can find an interesting report, Powering Ideas, recently published by the Australian government, outlining how what Australia might do to support innovation domestically. The report is quite long but at its nub, it points to a strategy of funding the infrastructure required by innovators it make it easy (and cheap) for them to innovate. This doesn’t mean that the government is getting out of the grant business, but it is an admission that the government doesn’t have a great track record of picking winners in this space. Cheap (if not free) infrastructure helps those grant dollars go further, while at the same time helping every innovator in Australia who wasn’t lucky enough to receive a grant.

Put the two of these together and it makes you wonder: what if they Australian government makes the the NBN free? Back in the 30’s the U.S. economy was driven by interstate commerce. Reducing the cost of trucking goods across the country (reducing the transaction costs) helped drive the economy forward. Today, in Australia, knowledge and collaboration are the back bone of the commerce. Reducing the cost of sharing information and collaborating has the potential to have a similar impact .

Like free and efficient roads, very cheap broadband access would help the entrepreneurs and innovators thrive. This would provide Australian’s with powerful platform to build businesses in a today’s knowledge economy. We could capitalise on the current trend for software-as-a-service (SaaS) startups replacing business process outsources (BPO), replacing a human labour driven solution is a software driven solution, servicing the world’s needs from our home base Research driven startups would have cheap and efficient access to the massive data sets which drive modern research, having the world at their fingertips.

You would probably still need to pay for the last mile, connecting your abode to the NBN backbone, but this is similar to the current energy delivery commitment from the government: they get the power lines to the property boundary, and then you pay someone to connect it into the house. Local ISPs could provide (or organises) the connection service, along with sorting out the home network and providing support. The NBN would also probably need to expand to include the link overseas, complimenting (or replacing) the network of links funded and managed by the existing telcos and ISPs.

And finally: where do the major Australian telcos fit in this? Interesting question. One probably better left to them to answer.

Innovation [2009-07-27]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

This issue:

Innovation [2009-06-15]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

This issue:

  • Powering Ideas [Review of Australia’s Innovation System]
    Australia’s innovation agenda for the 21st century. Well worth the read
  • Who Drives Software Innovation? The “Best-of-Breed vs. Giants” Debate [SmartData Collective]
    Is it the industry giants or the smaller, and more agile, best-of-breed players that drive innovation in our industry?
  • The Future of the Workplace [Monocle]
    In the first edition of Monocle’s Design Dialogues, an intimate series of discussions on key design issues, they throw the spotlight on the future of the workplace.
  • How Twitter will change the way we live [Time]
    Are tools like Twitter changing the dynamics of innovation? Traditionally we have used metrics to measure innovation which capture the inputs to the productization process; numbers like volume of patents generated or size of R&D spend. As Steven Johnson says toward the end of this article, “if you measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products and not just grad students, the U.S. has been lapping the field for the past 20 years”. What should we measure (as what’s measure is what gets done) if we want to innovate like Twitter?

There’s more to sustainability than simply using less

I wouldn’t be too surprised if the Australian government passes legislation requiring all residents to shower with a friend in an effort to save water. We’re in a bit of a bind; the longest drought in living memory combined with global warming and climate change means that there is just not enough water to go around.

Energy, water and our population are all interrelated
Energy, water and our population are all interrelated

It’s not just a lack of water causing problems though. Manufacturing more energy (electricity) requires huge amounts of water (for steam), while manufacturing more water requires huge amounts of energy (for desalination). Factor in a growing and increasingly urban population and you quickly realize that washing your car every few weeks and buying energy appliances just won’t cut it.

Take the electrify industry for example. Today’s electricity utilities follow a model that is relatively unchanged since Samuel Insull’s day. Electrons are manufactured in large power stations before they are trucked down wires to where they are consumed by consumer and industrial devices. Demand dictates supply. Electrons are shared equally among devices and if we don’t have enough to meet demand, then everyone gets less than they need. The result is brownouts: motors fuse, traffic lights dim and people crash. Life generally stops.

Electricity production since Samuel Insulls day
Electricity production since Samuel Insull's day

Micro-generation and CHP (combined heat and power) will alleviate the problem somewhat, but if we want an electricity supply for a sustainable future then we need to completely rethink how electricity is managed. We need to move from a demand-driven system, to a supply-driven system. Rather than racing to manufacture enough electricity to fulfill demand, the focus would be on effectively using the energy available to us.

The technology required to reinvent electricity distribution is already emerging into the commercial world. The global rollout of smart metering is providing us with the basic infrastructure for a new, smarter energy distribution system. The challenge is to move beyond conventional centrally run demand management programmes, and adopt more distributed approaches. Technology is already emerging into the commercial arena demonstrating the first tentative steps on this journey.

Imagine if we could import the retail electricity spot price into the home or factory via smart metering. We have national energy markets, so why not create an energy market inside our houses? Local generation (solar, wind, CHP) would have a price set based on required required return on investment, while energy is imported (if required) based on the spot price. The decision if and when to consume electricity is then devolved to the appliances (fridge, air conditioner etc) by letting them bid for the energy they need.

An internal energy market
An internal energy market

The intelligence to support this complex behavior might be buried inside the appliance itself, or mediated via a smart plug. A hot water heater would trade of electricity price, usage profile and current water temperature to optimize its operation. Air conditioners might let the internal temperature rise a couple of degrees if its exceptionally hit out side. A dish washer might wait until a quiet period late at night—long after you’ve gone to bed—before running it’s cycle. Lights would always turn on (of course), but would also turn off again if they cannot detect anyone in the room.

Given an understanding of our usage patterns a market can be used to turn of appliances we don’t need, harvest power then it is cheap (by using waste solar power to pump water up hill), or even sell our excess. Technology enables us to understand our usage patterns and align them with the internal and national energy market to most effectively use the energy available to us.

The new complexity this approach creates could be packaged into solutions. Energy retailers could offer energy plans, analogous to mobile phone plans. Each plan would be tailored to suit different habits and needs. Plans might include value-added solutions, such as installing solar or wind power on premises, integrated into the home market.

In the same way that Threadless and Rolls Royce mined the synergies between business and technology to reinvent their respective industries, some companies might use a supply driven network to transform their business models. Rather than selling electricity (generating more profit by selling more) they might reconfigure themselves into power management companies who help you manage your consumption (generating more profit by selling less). This could range from configuring, monitoring and managing you home appliances to match their performance to your needs, through to installing solar panels on your own roof—at their own cost—so that that they can offer solar power on your internal energy market.

What are the challenges and opportunities created when we move to a supply driven model? What happens when we have supply driven homes? Supply driven committees? Supply driven regions? Or when entire networks become supply driven?

What are the challenges and opportunities created when we move to a supply driven model?
What are the challenges and opportunities created when we move to a supply driven model?

Smart metering and smart plugs are showing us the way. We already have a demand signal, though somewhat delayed, and we can retro-fit appliances with smart plugs to support demand management. The next step is to make this infrastructure a little smarter; upgrading the sensor network to support more distributed command and control, and embedding decision making in the home and, ultimately, the appliances themselves. This enables us to push decision making to the edge of the network where it can scale more effectively, provides us with a generation of much more efficient applications, and sets us up for the future.