Tag Archives: World Wide Web

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.

[[1]]SemanticWeb.org[[1]]
[[2]]Tim Berners-Lee on Twitter[[2]]
[[3]]GovDirect[[3]]
[[4]]Peter Williams on the The Power of Taxonomies @ the Australian Government’s Standard Business Reporting Initiative[[4]]
[[5]]LinkedData.org[[5]]

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.

[[6]]AAII[[6]]

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.

[[8]]TED[[8]]

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.

[[11]]SalesForce.com[[11]]
[[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.

Innovation [2010-07-05]

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

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

What is the role of government in a Web 2.0 world?

What will be the role of government in a post Web 2.0 world? I doubt it’s what a lot of us predict, given society’s poor track record in predicting it’s own future.

One thing I am reasonably sure of though, is that this future won’t represent the open source nirvana that some pundits hope for. When I’ve ruminated in the past about the changing role of government, I’ve pointed out that attempting to create the future by dictate is definitely not the right approach. As I said then:

You don’t create peace by starting a war, and nor do you create open and collaborative government through top down directives. We can do better.

There was an excellent article by Nat Torkington, Rethinking open data, posted over at O’Reilly radar which shows this in action. As it points out, the U.S. Open Government Directive has prompted datasets of questionable value to be added to data.gov; while many of the applications are developed as they are easy to build, rather than providing any tangible benefit. Many of the large infrastructure projects commissioned in the name of open data suffered the same fate as large, unjustified infrastructure projects in private enterprise (i.e. they’re hard for the layman to understand, they have scant impact on solving the problems society seems plagued with, and they’re overly complex to deliver and use due to technological and political puritism).

A more productive approach is focus on solving problems that we, the populace, actually care about. In Australia this might involve responding to the bush fire season. California has a similar problem. The recent disaster in Haiti was another significant call to action. It was great to see the success that was Web 2.0 in Haiti (New Scientist had an excellent article).

As Nat Torkington says:

the best way to convince them to open data is to show an open data project that’s useful to real people.

Which makes me think: government is a tool for us to work together, not the enemy to subdue. Why don’t we move government on from service provider of last resort, which is the role it seems to play today.

Haiti showed us that some degree of centralisation is required to make these efforts work efficiently. A logical role for government going forward would be something like a market maker: connecting people who need services with the organisations providing them, and working to ensure that the market remains liquid. Government becomes the trusted party that ensures that there are enough service providers to meet demand, possibly even bundling service to provide solutions to life’s more complex problems.

We’ve had the public debate on whether or not government should own assets (bridges, power utilities etc.), and the answer was generally not. Government provision of services is well down a similar road. This frees up dedicated and hard working public servants (case workers, forestry staff, policy wonks …) to focus on the harder problem of determining what services should be provided.

Which brings me back to my original point. Why are we trying to drive government, and society in general, toward a particular imagined future of our choosing (one involving Open Government Directives, and complicated and expensive RDF infrastructure projects). We can use events like the bush fires and Haiti to form a new working relationship. Let’s pick hard but tractable problems and work together to find solutions. As Nat (again) points out, there’s a lot of data in government that public servants are eager to share, if we just give them a reason. And if our efforts deliver tangible benefits, then everyone will want to come along for the ride.

Updated: The reports are in: data.gov has quality issues. I’ve updated the text updated with the following references.

Updated: More news on data.gov’s limitations highlighting the problems with a “push” model to open government.

Innovation [2010-02-01]

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

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

The changing role of Government

Is Government 2.0 (whichever definition you choose) the ultimate aim of government? Government for the people and by the people. Or are we missing the point? We’re not a collection of individuals but a society where the whole is greater than the parts. Should government’s ultimate aim to be the trusted arbiter, bringing together society so that we can govern together? Rather than be disinterested and governed on, as seems to be the current fashion. In an age when everything is fragmented and we’re all responsible for our own destiny, government is in a unique position to be the body that binds together the life events that bring our society together.

Government 2.0 started with lofty goals: make government more collaborative. As with all definitions though, it seems that the custodians of definitions are swapping goals for means. Pundits are pushing for technology driven definitions, as Government 2.0 would not be possible without technology (but then, neither would my morning up of coffee).

Unfortunately Government 2.0 seems to be in danger of becoming “government as a platform”: GaaP or even GaaS (as it were). Entrepreneurs are calling on the government to open up government data, allowing start-ups to remix data to create new services. FixMyStreet might be interesting, and might even tick many of the right technology boxes, but it’s only a small fragment of what is possible.

GovHack

This approach has resulted in some interesting and worthwhile experiments like GovHack, but it seems to position much of government as a boat anchor to be yanked up with top-down directives rather than as valued members of society who are trying to do what they think is the right thing. You don’t create peace by starting a war, and nor do you create open and collaborative government through top down directives. We can do better.

The history of government has been a progression from government by and for the big man, through to today’s push for government for and by the people. Kings and Queens practiced stand-over tactics, going bust every four to seven years from running too many wars that they could not afford, and then leaning on the population to refill their coffers. The various socialist revolutions pushed the big man (or woman) out and replaced them with a bureaucracy intended to provide the population with the services they need. Each of us contributing in line with ability, and taking in line with need. The challenge (and possibly the unsolvable problem) was finding a way to do this in an economically sustainable fashion.

The start of the modern era saw government as border security and global conglomerate. The government was responsible for negotiating your relationship with the rest of the world, and service provision was out-sourced (selling power stations and rail lines). Passports went from a convenient way of identifying yourself when overseas, to become the tool of choice for governments to control border movements.

Government 2.0 is just the most recent iteration in this ongoing evolution of government. The initial promise: government for the little man, enabled by Web 2.0.

As with Enterprise 2.0, what we’re getting from the application of Web 2.0 to an organisation is not what we expected. For example, Enterprise 2.0 was seen as a way to empower knowledge workers but instead, seems to be resulting in a generation of hollowed out companies where the C-level and task workers at the coal face remain, but knowledge workers have been eliminated. Government 2.0 seems to have devolved into “government as a platform” for similar reasons, driven by a general distrust of government (or, at least, the current government which the other people elected) and a desire to have more influence on how government operates.

Government, The State, has come to be defined as the enemy of the little man. The giant organisation which we are largely powerless against (even though we elected them). Government 2.0 is seen as the can opener which can be used to cut the lid off government. Open up government data for consumption and remixing by entrepreneurs. Provide APIs to make this easy. Let us solve your citizen’s problems.

We’re already seeing problems with trust in on-line commerce due to this sort of fine-grained approach. The rise of online credit card purchases has pull the credit card fraud rate up with it resulting in a raft of counter-measures, from fraud detection through to providing consumers with access to their credit reports. Credit reports which, in the U.S., some providers are using as the basis for questionable tactics which scam and extort money from the public.

Has the pendulum swung too far? Or is it The Quiet American all over again?

Gone are the days where we can claim that “The State” is something that doesn’t involve the citizens. Someone to blame when things go wrong. We need to accept that now, more than ever, we always elect the government we deserve.

Technology has created a level of transparency and accountablility—exhemplified by Obama’s campaign—that are breeding a new generation of public servants. Rather than government for, by or of the people, we getting government with the people.

This is driving a the next generation of government: government as the arbitrator of life events. Helping citizens collaborate together. Making us take responsibility for our own futures. Supporting us when facing challenges.

Business-technology, a term coined by Forrester, is a trend for companies to exploit the synergies between business and technology and create new solutions to old problems. Technology is also enabling a new approach to government. Rather than deliver IT Government alignment to support an old model of government, the current generation of technologies make available a new model which harks back to the platonic ideals.

We’ve come along way from the medieval days when government was (generally) something to be ignored:

  • Government for the man (the kings and queens)
  • Government by the man (we’ll tell you what you need) (each according to their need, each …)
  • Government as a conglomerate (everything you need)
  • Government as a corporation (everything you can afford)

The big idea behind Government 2.0 is, at its nub, government together. Erasing the barriers between citizens, between citizens and the government, helping us to take responsibility for our future, and work together to make our world a better place.

Government 2.0 should not be a platform for entrepreneurs to exploit, but a shared framework to help us live together. Transparent development of policy. Provision (though not necessirly ownership) of shared infrastructure. Support when you need it (helping you find the services you need). Involvement in line with the Greek/Roman ideal (though more inclusive, without exclusions such as women or slaves).

Innovation [2009-05-04]

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

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

This issue:

The revolution will not be televised

Or the importance of being both good and original.

While I’m not a big fan of musicians reworking past hits, I’m beginning to wonder if we should ask Gil Scott-Heron to run up a new version of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. He made a good point then: that real change comes from the people dealing with the day-to-day challenges, not the people talking about them. His point still holds today. Web 2.0 might be where the buzz is, but the real revolution will emerge from the child care workers, farmers, folk working in Starbucks, and all the other people who live outside the limelight.

There appears to be a disconnect between the technology community—the world of a-list bloggers, venture capital, analysts, (non-)conferences, etc.—and the people who doing real things. The world we technologists live in is not the real world. The real world is people going out and solving problems and trying to keep their head above water, rather than worrying about their blog, twitter, venture funding, or the new-new thing. This is the world that invented micro-credit, where fishermen off the african coast use a mobile phones to find the market price of their cash, and where farmers in Australia are using Web 2.0 (not that they care what it is) to improve their farm management. These people don’t spend their time blogging since they’re too busy trying to improve the world around them. Technology will not change the world on its own; however real people solving real problems will.

We’re all too caught up in the new-new thing. A wise friend of mine often makes the point that we have more technology than we can productively use; perhaps it’s time to take a breather from trying to create the new-new-new thing, look around the world, and see what problems we can solve with the current clutch of technologies we have. The most impressive folk I’ve met in recent years don’t blog, vlog, twitter or spend their time changing their Facebook profile. They’re focused on solving their problems using whatever tools are available.

Mesh Collaboration
Mesh Collaboration

Which I suppose brings me to my point. In a world where we’re all communicating with each other all of the time—the world of mesh collaboration—it’s all to easy to mistake the medium for the message. We get caught up in the sea of snippets floating around us, looking for that idea that will solve our problem and give us a leg up on the competition. What we forget is that our peers and competitors are all swimming in the same sea of information, so the ideas we’re seeing represent best practice at best. The mesh is a great leveler, spreading information evenly like peanut butter over the globe, but don’t expect it to provide you with that insight that will help you stand out from the
crowd.

Another wise friend makes the equally good point that in the mesh it’s not enough to be good: you need to both good and original. The mesh doesn’t help you with original. Original is something that bubbles up when our people in the field struggle with real problems and we give them the time, space, and tools to explore new ways of working.

A great example is the rise in sharity blogs. The technical solution to sharing music files is to create peer-to-peer (P2P) applications—applications, which a minority of internet users use to consume the majority of the available bandwidth. However, P2P is too complicated for many people (involving downloading and installing software, finding a torrent seeds, and learning a new language including terms like torrent seed) and disconnected from the music communities. Most of the music sharing action has moved onto sharity blogs. Using free blogging and file sharing services (such as Blogger and RapidShare, respectively) communities are building archives of music that you can easily download, archives which you can find via a search engines and which are integrated (via links) into the communities and discussions around them. The ease of plugging together a few links lets collectors focus on being original; putting their own spin on the collection they are building, be it out of print albums, obscure artists or genres, or simply whatever they can get their hands on.

What can we learn from this? When we develop our new technology and/or Web 2.0 strategy, we need to remember that what we’re trying to do is provide our team with a new tool to help them do a better job. Deploying Web 2.0 as a new suite of information silos, disconnected from the current work environment, will create yet another touch point for our team members to navigate as they work toward their goals. This detracts from their work, which is what they’re really interested in, resulting in them ignoring the new application as it seems more trouble than it is worth. The mesh is a tool to be used and not an end in itself, and needs to be integrated into and support the existing work environment in a way that makes work easer. This creates the time and space for our employees to explore new ideas and new ways of working, helping them to become both good and original.

Update: Swapped the image of Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of Man for an embedded video of The revolution will not be televised, at the excellent suggestion of Judith Ellis.

Innovation [2008-10-20]

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

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

This issue:

  • The Challenges of Innovation [BusinessWeek]
    Indifference, hostility, and isolation are among the major obstacles to a healthy innovation environment.
  • Touching and hearing the past in Dresden [psfk]
    Those who visit Brühl’s Terrace in Germany are set to get more than just pretty view. Markus Kison’s touched echo brings life to the 1945 Dresden air raids. Visitors to the area can hear the airplanes, explosions and air raid sirens of the 13th of February raids though four small, disguised sound conductors.
  • NASA Spinoff homepage [NASA]
    NASA’s yearly Spinoff publication was recently released, celebrating the agency’s 50th anniversary with 50 ways their technology is used in everyday life.
  • Inside Google’s design process [BusinessWeek]
    Insight into the design process behind Google’s G1/Android mobile phone.

Innovation [2008-10-03]

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

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

This issue: