professional reflections

No data here - just Linked Concepts

Over the years I've found the ' Semantic Web' to be an interesting though, at times, faintly worrying concept. It has never much impacted on my work directly, despite my having been embroiled in Web development since, well pretty much, Web development began. Of late I've tried to follow the earnest discussions about how the Semantic Web went all wrong because it was hijacked by the AI enthusiasts, and how it is going to be alright now because a more pragmatic paradigm has gained the upper-hand, that of Linked Data.

This post is my tuppence worth provoked by an interesting debate on Twitter recently which was kicked off by Andy Powell who has just blogged about it. It's worth reading Andy's post to get the details of this, but in essence, Andy asked if there was a term we could use for Linked Data where the RDF part is not required. This provoked a distributed argument between those who believe that the RDF model is integral to Linked Data, those who believe it shouldn't be, and those who Don't Really Care To Be Honest.

I found myself generally in agreement with Paul Miller who made the point:

Despite this undoubted progress, the green shoots of a Linked Data ecology remain delicate. By moving from a message that stresses the value of unambiguous and web-addressable naming (HTTP URIs), providing ‘useful information,’ and enabling people to ‘discover more things’ by linking toward a message that elevates one of the best mechanisms (RDF) for achieving this to become the only permissible approach, we do the broader aims great harm.

It seems to me that there has been progress over the years which a zealous insistence on RDF could jeopardise. I had thought about joining in and blogging about this, and then came across this comment from Dan Brickley via Rob Styles, which pretty much said it all I thought. He finishes with:

But we needn’t panic if people put non-RDF data up online…. it’s still better than nothing. And as the LOD scene has shown, it can often easily be processed and republished by others. People worry too much! :)

Quite.

But then I read Andy's post, in which he links to various people including Ian Davis in the Linked Data Brand. Right up front, Ian states:

This is not a technical issue and its not one of zealots or pragmatists: its a marketing and branding issue.

The term Linked Data was coined to brand a specific class of practices: namely assigning HTTP URIs to abitrary things and making those URIs respond with RDF relating the things to other things.

Here very few of the ‘things’ are documents, instead they are people, places, objects and concepts.

That deliberately excludes many other practices of publishing data on the web such as atom feeds, spreadsheets, APIs and even many existing RDF use cases.

Ah - so, It's the label which is important, because it denotes an important movement, led by Tim Berners Lee himself. Interestingly, it's concerned with a very small part of the general concern of making data available on the Web - actually it's not even about data per se - it's about linking concepts.

Ian goes on to say:

The Semantic Web community has been notorious for its poor marketing over the past decade. Now just when it seems the community has found the right balance between technology and mass appeal it feels like people are trying to rip away that success for their own purposes. That is deliberately emotive language because brands are all about emotion.

I have spent much of my career linking data on the Web, linking eLearning systems to Library OPACs for example. I have occasionally used RDF in the past and am working with it again now. I have used many other technologies. In the last few years I have seen the dawning of an understanding on the part of the mainstream of Web developers and users that this kind of thing might be useful and worth investing some time and effort in. I would argue that the most significant advance in linking data in recent years has been in the wide-spread adoption of cottage-industry XML formats in Web 2.0 mashups. I don't think people are trying to appropriate the brand, so much as resisting the idea that a term as generic sounding as 'Linked Data' could be owned by what is, in the scheme of things, a small group.

So if I decided to use 'Linked Data' to describe linking data in general - it certainly wouldn't be because I was jumping on a band-wagon - I think that the wheels came of that particular band-wagon years ago.

So that leaves us back at Andy's question. I'm happy to avoid winding up the Linked Data people by 'appropriating' their term but, then, what do I call it when I link data on the Web and I don't check Sir Tim's design issues first? Personally, I like 'Web of Data'. I've blogged about this before, but I still believe that this slide from Tom Coates's Native to a Web of Data presentation (which I suggested to Andy as part of the answer to his original question) sums it up best - I've had a print-out of that particular slide stuck up on my office wall for about three years.

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