….more what you’d call “guidelines”….

Owen Stephen’s has written a helpful post which makes a very useful contribution to the debate regarding the interpretation of Tim Berners Lee’s Linked Data Design Issues. See my earlier post for a summary of the debate. With all these attempts to clarify the ambiguity I couldn’t help being reminded of the infamous Pirate Code from Pirates of the Caribbean:

“And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard!”

Sorry, couldn’t resist it ;)

Mary Lacy, the female shipwright

Something a bit left field for Ada Lovelace Day this year as the woman I’ve chosen to write about was born 75 years before Ada herself, and I’m perhaps stretching the definition of “technology” a bit. Allow me to introduce Mary Lacy, the female shipwright, whose contemporary autobiography written in 1773 has recently been republished by the National Maritime Museum. Lacy is an astonishing woman by any standards. In her introduction to the autobiography Margaret Lincoln of the NMM writes:
The Female Shipwright

“In an age when women did not serve in the armed forces or train to become qualified shipwrights or set themselves up as speculative house builders, Lacy did all three.”

And what is even more remarkable is that she did it all independently while disguised as a man.

Lacy was born into a poor working class family in Kent in 1740. She grew up as a self confessed wayward child and was put into service by her parents in an attempt to curb her unruly behavior. At the age of nineteen, following an unhappy affair with a young man, she appropriated a suit of her father’s clothes, assumed the name William Chandler and ran away from home. On arriving penniless and hungry at Chatham Dockyard she joined the crew of the newly built HMS Sandwich, a 90 gun second-rate ship of the line. Lacy knew nothing of ships, and much to the amusement of the other men mistook the open gun ports for a large number of windows. Chandler was taken on as apprentice and servant to the ship’s carpenter, a volatile man who beat her and appropriated her wages. Lacy however didn’t hesitate to stand up for herself and when challenged took on one of the Admiral’s boys in a fight. She records that she came off with “flying colours” and that she and the boy “reconciled to each other as if we had been brothers”.

Lacy served aboard the Sandwich and later the Royal Sovereign from 1759 to around 1764, enduring the extraordinary hardships of life as a rating during the Seven Years War. During this time the Sandwich was stationed on blockade with Admiral Hawke’s fleet off Brest. The ship was returning from blockade duty when the French fleet broke from Brest resulting in the Battle of Quiberon Bay. Lacy writes of the engagement but adds that “…our ship had no share in the battle for we were at the time in Plymouth.”

Following the Quiberon engagement the Sandwich was ordered to the Bay of Biscay where Lacy notes:

“I must here observe, that a person who is a stranger to these great and boisterous seas, must think it impossible for a large ship to ride in them, but I slept many months on the ocean, where I have been tossed up and down at an amazing rate.”

Lacy experienced even more boisterous seas during a terrible two day hurricane which struck the English Channel in 1760. The Sandwich survived with seven men downed and sprung main and foremasts. However their sister ship Ramillies foundered with the loss of 675 men and only 25 survivors.

Life at sea soon took its toll on Lacy and by her early twenties the continual cold and wet brought on inflammatory rheumatism, a recurring condition that hospitalised Lacy several times.

In 1764 Lacy finally secured an apprenticeship as a shipwright at Portsmouth dockyard. Her trials were not over however. She appears to have been apprenticed to a series of irresponsible masters who once again appropriated her wages and neglected to provide her with the bare necessities.

“It may with very great truth be said that Mr A____’s house entertained a very bad set of people. I had not been long with him before he turned me over to another man to pay his debts; and when I worked that out, was again turned over to a third: so that shifted from one to the another I had neither clothes on my back nor shoes or stockings to my feet; notwithstanding which, I was frequently (even in the dead of winter) obliged to go the the dock-yard bare-footed.”

Lacy’s life was not without entertainment however. She had a veritable string of sweethearts of whom she writes candidly and unashamedly. She even notes with some pride that:

“As I was frequently walking out with some of them, the men of the yard concluded that I was a very amorous spark when in the company of young women.”

And indeed she was!

Lacy achieved her certificate as shipwright after seven years apprenticeship in 1770 enabling her to earn an independent wage. In 1771 however Portsmouth dockyard was ravaged by a terrible fire, as a result of which the shipwrights had to work “double tides”. The long hours and hard labour aggravated Lacy’s rheumatism to the point she could no longer work and was forced to seek retirement as a Superannuated Shipwright.

It seems inconceivable now that a woman could serve undetected in the close confines of a man-of-war for such a long period, however the Royal Navy was desperate for able bodied men at the time, whether willing to serve or no, so few questions would have been asked. In a chapter on Lacy, Suzanne Stark author of Female Tars also notes that, living in such close confines, ratings were accustomed to turn a blind eye on all kinds of goings on. When Lacy’s sex was eventually revealed by a female “false friend” her male colleagues are unperturbed and continue to treat her as the shipwright they know. It is also notable that when rheumatism finally made it impossible for Lacy to continue working at the dockyard she applied to the Admiralty for a pension under her own name. The application was granted and Lacy was paid a substantial pension of £20 per annum.

Lacy’s biography concludes with her marriage to one “Mr Slade” however historians have cast doubt on this event. Stark suggests that the marriage is a fiction to make Lacy appear more respectable to contemporary readers. Lincoln has found no record of Lacy’s alleged marriage however she has traced

“Mary Slade of King Street, Deptford, who we can take to have been Mary Lacy, moved into a new double fronted house in Deptford with Elizabeth Slade in 1777. This house was at the centre of a terrace which she built herself….The terrace survives in part at Nos 104 -108 and 116-118 Deptford High Street…It seems likely that she used her pension of £20 p.a. as security for a mortgage…She lived for another twenty years…after her death “Mary Slade” was described as a “spinster and shopkeeper”….it seems probable that Lacy took Elizabeth Slade’s surname to pass as her sister.”

A remarkable end for a remarkable woman.

Lacy wrote and published her biography at the age of 33 and her account of her life is inspirational, candid and refreshing. While she shows contrition for her youthful waywardness and acknowledges that she would have spared herself a life of hardship had she listened to her parents, she is unapologetic about the life she lived and path she chose. I believe Mary Lacy is easily worthy of commemoration on Ada Lovelace Day and who knows, perhaps Ada even read her biography herself!

Further information
Lacy, M., (2009), The Female Shipwright, National Maritime Museum.
Stark, S. J., (1996), Female Tars: women aboard ship in the age of sail, Constable.
And a podcast by Margaret Lincoln of the National Maritime Museum celebrating the republication of Lacy’s biography: The Story of Mary Lacy.

When is Linked Data not Linked Data? – A summary of the debate

One of the activities identified during last December’s Semantic Technology Working Group meeting to be taken forward by CETIS was the production of a briefing paper that disambiguated some of the terminology for those that are less familiar with this domain. The following terms in particular were highlighted:

  • Semantic Web
  • semantic technologies
  • Linked Data
  • linked data
  • linkable data
  • Open Data

I’ve finally started drafting this briefing paper and unsurprisingly defining the above terms is proving to be a non-trivial task! Pinning down agreed definitions for Linked Data, linked data and linkable data is particularly problematic. And I’m not the only one having trouble. If you look up Semantic Web and Linked Data / linked data on wikipedia you will find entries flagged as having multiple issues. It does rather feel like we’re edging close to holy war territory here. But having said that I do enjoy a good holy war as long as I’m watching safely from the sidelines.

So what’s it all about? As far as I can make out much of the debate boils down to whether Linked Data must adhere to the four principles outlined in Tim Berners Lee’s Linked Data Design Issues, and in particular whether use of RDF and SPARQL is mandatory. Some argue that RDF is integral to Linked Data, other suggest that while it may be desirable, use of RDF is optional rather than mandatory. Some reserve the capitalized term Linked Data for data that is based on RDF and SPARQL, preferring lower case “linked data”, or “linkable data”, for data that uses other technologies.

The fact that the Linked Data Design Issues paper is a personal note by Tim Berners Lee, and is not formally endorsed by W3C also contributes to the ambiguity. The note states:

  1. Use URIs as names for things
  2. Use HTTP URIs so that people can look up those names.
  3. When someone looks up a URI, provide useful information, using the standards (RDF, SPARQL)
  4. Include links to other URIs. so that they can discover more things.

I’ll refer to the steps above as rules, but they are expectations of behaviour. Breaking them does not destroy anything, but misses an opportunity to make data interconnected. This in turn limits the ways it can later be reused in unexpected ways. It is the unexpected re-use of information which is the value added by the web. (Berners Lee, http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkedData.html)

In the course of trying to untangle some of the arguments both for and against the necessity of using RDF and SPARQL I’ve read a lot of very thoughtful blog posts which it may be useful to link to here for future reference. Clearly these are not the only, or indeed the most recent, posts that discuss this most topical of topics, these happen to be the ones I have read and which I believe present a balanced over view of the debate in such a way as to be of relevance to the JISC CETIS community.

Linked data vs. Web of data vs. …
– Andy Powell, Eduserv, July 2009

The first useful post I read on this particular aspect of the debate is Andy Powell’s from July 2009. This post resulted from the following question Andy raised on twitter;

is there an agreed name for an approach that adopts the 4 principles of #linkeddata minus the phrase, “using the standards (RDF, SPARQL)” ??

Andy was of the opinion that Linked Data “implies use of the RDF model – full stop” adding:

“it’s too late to re-appropriate the “Linked Data” label to mean anything other than “use http URIs and the RDF model”.”

However he is unable to provide a satisfactory answer to his own question, i.e. what do you call linked data that does not use the RDF model, and despite exploring alternative models he concludes by professing himself to be worried about this.

Andy returned to this theme in a more recent post in January 2010, Readability and linkability which ponders the relative emphasis given to readability and linkability by initiatives such as the JISC Information Environment. Andy’s general principles have not changed but he presents term machine readable data (MRD) as a potential answer to the question he originally asked in his earlier post.

Does Linked Data need RDF?
– Paul Miller, The Cloud of Data, July 2009

Paul Miller’s post is partially a response to Andy’s query. Paul begins by noting that while RDF is key to the Semantic Web and

“an obvious means of publishing — and consuming — Linked Data powerfully, flexibly, and interoperably.”

he is uneasy about conflating RDF with Linked Data and with assertions that

“‘Linked Data’ can only be Linked Data if expressed in RDF.”

Paul discusses the wording an status of Tim Berners Lee’s Linked Data Design Issues and suggest that it can be read either way. He then goes on to argue that by elevating RDF from the best mechanism for achieving Linked Data to the only permissible approach we risk barring a large group

“with data to share, a willingness to learn, and an enthusiasm to engage.”

Paul concludes by asking the question:

“What are we after? More Linked Data, or more RDF? I sincerely hope it’s the former.”

No data here – just Linked Concepts and Linked, open, semantic?
– Paul Walk, UKOLN, July & November 2009

Paul Walk has published two useful posts on this topic; the first summarising and commenting on the debate sparked by the two posts above, and the second following the Giant Global Graph session at the CETIS 2009 Conference. This latter post presents a very useful attempt at disambiguating the terms Open data , Linked Data and Semantic Web. Paul also tries to untangle the relationship between these three memes and helpfully notes:

  • data can be open, while not being linked
  • data can be linked, while not being open
  • data which is both open and linked is increasingly viable
  • the Semantic Web can only function with data which is both open and linked

So What Is It About Linked Data that Makes it Linked Data™?
- Tony Hirst, Open University, March 2010

Much more recently Tony Hirst published this post which begins with a version of the four Linked Data principles cut from wikipedia. This particular version makes no mention of either RDF or SPARQL. Tony goes on to present a very neat example of data linked using HTTP URI and Yahoo Pipes and asks

“So, the starter for ten: do we have an example of Linked Data™ here?”

Tony broadly believes the answer is yes and is of a similar opinion to Paul Miller that too rigid adherence to RDF and SPARQL

“will put a lot of folk who are really excited about the idea of trying to build services across distributed (linkable) datasets off…”

Perhaps more controversially Tony questions the necessity of universal unique URIs that resolve to content suggesting that:

“local identifiers can fulfil the same role if you can guarantee the context as in a Yahoo Pipe or a spreadsheet”

Tony signs off with:

“My name’s Tony Hirst, I like linking things together, but RDF and SPARQL just don’t cut it for me…”

Meshing up a JISC e-learning project timeline, or: It’s Linked Data on the Web, stupid
– Wilbert Kraan, JISC CETIS, March 2009

Back here at CETIS Wilbert Kraan has been experimenting with linked data meshups of JISC project data held in our PROD system. In contrast to the approach taken by Tony, Wilbert goes down the RDF and SPARQL route. Wilbert confesses that he originally believed that:

“SPARQL endpoints were these magic oracles that we could ask anything about anything.”

However his attempts to mesh up real data sets on the web highlighted the fact that SPARQL has no federated search facility.

“And that the most obvious way of querying across more than one dataset – pulling in datasets from outside via SPARQL’s FROM – is not allowed by many SPARQL endpoints. And that if they do allow FROM, they frequently cr*p out.”

Wilbert concludes that:

“The consequence is that exposing a data set as Linked Data is not so much a matter of installing a SPARQL endpoint, but of serving sensibly factored datasets in RDF with cool URLs, as outlined in Designing URI Sets for the UK Public Sector (pdf).”

And in response to a direct query regarding the necessity of RDF and SPARQL to Linked Data Wilbert answered

“SPARQL and RDF are a sine qua non of Linked Data, IMHO. You can keep the label, widen the definition out, and include other things, but then I’d have to find another label for what I’m interested in here.”

Which kind of brings us right back to the question that Andy Powell asked in July 2009!

So there you have it. A fascinating but currently inconclusive debate I believe. Apologies for the length of this post. Hopefully one day this will go on to accompany our “Semantic Web and Linked Data” briefing paper.

Dev8D: where were the women? A response.

I’m writing this in response to MShaw’s post on DevCSI asking why there were so few women at Dev8D. I’m answering over here rather than over there because this is something I’ve been pondering for a while. And, as my colleague John Robertson pointed out on twitter:

Appropriate for International Woman’s Day? discussion on devsci blog about proportion of women (~7%) at #dev8D

Over at the DevCSI MShaw notes:

The technology/web development industry is notoriously male-dominated, but even in this context the gender imbalance at Dev8D seemed disproportionate.

And asks:

Are we doing enough to attracted women to these kinds of events? What could we do to improve the gender balance? Do you even think it’s an issue?

I think it is in issue. I’m not entirely sure what we can do about it, but I certainly think it’s something we should consider closely.

There are a lot of complex and interconnected issues which I can’t possibly hope to untangle here. They include: are fewer women really attracted to careers in technology? If so why? Is it something to do with the discipline itself? Or is it more to do with the culture of technology industries? And I include educational technology here.

Obviously I do work in technology, I have done for some time and I am one of those women who did not attend dev8D. Why? Although I work in technology I do not consider myself to be a “techy”. I am most definitely not a programmer and have often joked in the past that I couldn’t implement a spec if my life depended on it. Having said that, I am not remotely afraid of technology and I enjoy talking and working with developers. I’ve run more than a few codebashes in my time for heaven’s sake! You don’t get much more techy than that. So while on the one hand I may consider myself “not techy enough” to play with the boys at Dev8D, on the other hand these are the same people I have enjoyed working with for the last ten years or so.

The logistics of the event also made it difficult for me to attend. Although I used to travel a lot I now have a small child to look after and a partner who works long shifts so arranging childcare for anything longer than a single over night stay is difficult if not impossible. Logistics and responsibilities can’t be ignored.

MShaw’s post also brought to mind a CRIG Unconference I attended a couple of years ago. The focus was repositories, a technology domain where I think women are reasonably well represented. However of the 40 or so people who attended there were only 4 women: me, Julie Allinson, as sociologist who was there to observe the event and the administrator, who took names at the door and handed out stickers and badges. Not very encouraging.

At the time there was something about the lack of women at the CRIG Unconference that concerned me. I used to spend a lot of time on the road participating in international standards meetings, where I was frequently the only woman in the room. This was such a common occurrence that eventually I scarcely noticed. So what what was it about the Unconference that bothered me? I’m still not sure. I hesitate to say it but there does seem to be something a bit blokey about the format of some of these developer events. Although to be fair, at the recent CETIS Future of Interoperability Standards event women were as poorly represented as at Dev8D and the Unconference.

I can’t help being reminded of my previous career as an archaeologist. Although I did most of my field work in Scotland I once worked on a survey project in the South Hauran desert in the north of Jordan near the Syrian border. We stayed in a tiny one horse town called Umm el-Qetain where we rented the top floor of a typical house from a Bedouin family. Our hosts were extraordinarily welcoming and offered us hospitality at every opportunity. What was interesting is that these traditional houses are normally quite strictly segregated with family rooms, women’s rooms and the men’s rooms. The only woman allowed in the men’s room was the eldest matriarch of the house and even then she appeared to observe certain conventions of behaviour. However the three women in our field crew were treated exactly as men. We were regularly invited into the men’s room for mint tea and pastries and none of the men ever commented on our unusual behavior. (However they did howl with laughter when they saw our male colleagues washing their own socks.)

I’m still sometimes reminded of sitting in the men’s room in Umm el Qetain when I attend certain technical events. Everyone is welcoming and hospitable to a fault but you can’t help being aware that you are the minority and that somehow you are “fitting in” or rather being slotted into a space that doesn’t quite fit.

I don’t think I’ve expressed this very clearly, primarily because I don’t have a clear idea of exactly what is going on here. Hmmmmm. If anyone can enlighten me please comment.