Objects in this Mirror are Closer than they Appear: Linked Data and the Web of Concepts

There is a whole collection of web technology that has been largely ignored or misunderstood. Sometimes we technical folk just made it over-complicated in great fits of excitement for the potential a new technology. This has probably been the case with a collection of technologies, both specifications and architectural practices, that can be grouped under the heading “semantic web”. But things are changing.

The change is heralded by the meme of Linked Data which originated with Tim Berners-Lee in 2006. There are two really significant things about this meme: it is intelligible; it translated to real change. The really-really significant thing is that, although it is intelligible, it remains a solid foundation for some of the more pointy-headed technology; its adoption represents an important platform for change. It will affect how people think about and realise interoperability of data.

The TED presentation by Tim Berners-Lee, “The Next Web” is a good motivational introduction to why this is a significant movement and includes a really succinct boiling-down of the technical ideas: assign URIs to concepts; relationships are links. There is nothing technically-new here. That is the point! It is intelligable.

If Linked Data remained only an intelligable idea, it would not be so interesting. An idea that is acted upon is both more potent and, depending on the enacting agent, an indicator of changing practice. Tom Scott of BBC Earth provided an interview to PWC Technology Forecast recently, “Traversing the Giant Global Graph“, in which “Scott describes how the BBC is using Semantic Web technology and philosophy to improve the relevance of and access to content on the BBC Programmes and Music Web sites in a scalable way.” Adoption by such a high profile organisation gives those who, like CETIS, have been advocating a semantic-web-inspired approach to interoperability a real boost.

In a completely different corner of human endeavour, the Royal Society of Chemistry has been doing things in the same flight-path. RSC Prospect enriches journal articles through chemical and biological ontology terms and the recently-acquired ChemSpider provides “access to almost 21.5 million unique chemical entities sourced from over 200 different data sources and integration to a multitude of other online services” organised according to chemical structure. These are not there yet, as Linked Data, but the direction of travel seems clear.

When a major media player and the publishing arm of a professional society are making progress on what was esoterica only a few years ago, I think I’m safe in predicting change is afoot; sense and significance will be apparent to a wider set of people and I’m optimistic that members of the education sector will number highly in that set.

Linked Data and the web of concepts is closer than it may appear.