Linked Literature, Linked TV – Everything Looks like a Graph

cloud

Ben Fry in ‘Visualizing Data‘:

Graphs can be a powerful way to represent relationships between data, but they are also a very abstract concept, which means that they run the danger of meaning something only to the creator of the graph. Often, simply showing the structure of the data says very little about what it actually means, even though it’s a perfectly accurate means of representing the data. Everything looks like a graph, but almost nothing should ever be drawn as one.

There is a tendency when using graphs to become smitten with one’s own data. Even though a graph of a few hundred nodes quickly becomes unreadable, it is often satisfying for the creator because the resulting figure is elegant and complex and may be subjectively beautiful, and the notion that the creator’s data is “complex” fits just fine with the creator’s own interpretation of it. Graphs have a tendency of making a data set look sophisticated and important, without having solved the problem of enlightening the viewer.

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Ben Fry is entirely correct.

I suggest two excuses for this indulgence: if the visuals are meaningful only to the creator of the graph, then let’s make everyone a graph curator. And if the things the data attempts to describe — for example, 14 million books and the world they in turn describe — are complex and beautiful and under-appreciated in their complexity and interconnectedness, … then perhaps it is ok to indulge ourselves. When do graphs become maps?

I report here on some experiments that stem from two collaborations around Linked Data. All the visuals in the post are views of bibliographic data, based on similarity measures derrived from book / subject keyword associations, with visualization and a little additional analysis using Gephi. Click-through to Flickr to see larger versions of any image. You can’t always see the inter-node links, but the presentation is based on graph layout tools.

Firstly, in my ongoing work in the NoTube project, we have been working with TV-related data, ranging from ‘social Web’ activity streams, user profiles, TV archive catalogues and classification systems like Lonclass. Secondly, over the summer I have been working with the Library Innovation Lab at Harvard, looking at ways of opening up bibliographic catalogues to the Web as Linked Data, and at ways of cross-linking Web materials (e.g. video materials) to a Webbified notion of ‘bookshelf‘.

In NoTube we have been making use of the Apache Mahout toolkit, which provided us with software for collaborative filtering recommendations, clustering and automatic classification. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do, but here show some initial results applying Mahout to a 100,000 record subset of Harvard’s 14 million entry catalogue. Mahout is built to scale, and the experiments here use datasets that are tiny from Mahout’s perspective.

gothic_idol

In NoTube, we used Mahout to compute similarity measures between each pair of items in a catalogue of BBC TV programmes for which we had privileged access to subjective viewer ratings. This was a sparse matrix of around 20,000 viewers, 12,500 broadcast items, with around 1.2 million ratings linking viewer to item. From these, after a few rather-too-casual tests using Mahout’s evaluation measure system, we picked its most promising similarity measure for our data (LogLikelihoodSimilarity or Tanimoto), and then for the most similar items, simply dumped out a huge data file that contained pairs of item numbers, plus a weight.

There are many many smarter things we could’ve tried, but in the spirit of ‘minimal viable product‘, we didn’t try them yet. These include making use of additional metadata published by the BBC in RDF, so we can help out Mahout by letting it know that when Alice loves item_62 and Bob loves item_82127, we also via RDF also knew that they are both in the same TV series and Brand. Why use fancy machine learning to rediscover things we already know, and that have been shared in the Web as data? We could make smarter use of metadata here. Secondly we could have used data-derrived or publisher-supplied metadata to explore whether different Mahout techniques work better for different segments of the content (factual vs fiction) or even, as we have also some demographic data, different groups of users.

markets

Anyway, Mahout gave us item-to-item similarity measures for TV. Libby has written already about how we used these in ‘second screen’ (or ‘N-th’ screen, aka N-Screen) prototypes showing the impact that new Web standards might make on tired and outdated notions of “TV remote control”.

What if your remote control could personalise a view of some content collection? What if it could show you similar things based on your viewing behavior, and that of others? What if you could explore the ever-growing space of TV content using simple drag-and-drop metaphors, sending items to your TV or to your friends with simple tablet-based interfaces?

medieval_society

So that’s what we’ve been up to in NoTube. There are prototypes using BBC content (sadly not viewable by everyone due to rights restrictions), but also some experiments with TV materials from the Internet Archive, and some explorations that look at TED’s video collection as an example of Web-based content that (via ted.com and YouTube) are more generally viewable. Since every item in the BBC’s Archive is catalogued using a library-based classification system (Lonclass, itself based on UDC) the topic of cross-referencing books and TV has cropped up a few times.

new_colonialism

Meanwhile, in (the digital Public Library of) America, … the Harvard Library Innovation Lab team have a huge and fantastic dataset describing 14 million bibliographic records. I’m not sure exactly how many are ‘books'; libraries hold all kinds of objects these days. With the Harvard folk I’ve been trying to help figure out how we could cross-reference their records with other “Webby” sources, such as online video materials. Again using TED as an example, because it is high quality but with very different metadata from the library records. So we’ve been looking at various tricks and techniques that could help us associate book records with those. So for example, we can find tags for their videos on the TED site, but also on delicious, and on youtube. However taggers and librarians tend to describe things quite differently. Tags like “todo”, “inspirational”, “design”, “development” or “science” don’t help us pin-point the exact library shelf where a viewer might go to read more on the topic. Or conversely, they don’t help the library sites understand where within their online catalogues they could embed useful and engaging “related link” pointers off to TED.com or YouTube.

So we turned to other sources. Matching TED speaker names against Wikipedia allows us to find more information about many TED speakers. For example the Tim Berners-Lee entry, which in its Linked Data form helpfully tells us that this TED speaker is in the categories ‘Japan_Prize_laureates’, ‘English_inventors’, ‘1955_births’, ‘Internet_pioneers’. All good to know, but it’s hard to tell which categories tell us most about our speaker or video. At least now we’re in the Linked Data space, we can navigate around to Freebase, VIAF and a growing Web of data-sources. It should be possible at least to associate TimBL’s TED talks with library records for his book (so we annotate one bibliographic entry, from 14 million! …can’t we map areas, not items?).

tv

Can we do better? What if we also associated Tim’s two TED talk videos with other things in the library that had the same subject classifications or keywords as his book? What if we could build links between the two collections based not only on published authorship, but on topical information (tags, full text analysis of TED talk transcripts). Can we plan for a world where libraries have access not only to MARC records, but also full text of each of millions of books?

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I’ve been exploring some of these ideas with David Weinberger, Paul Deschner and Matt Phillips at Harvard, and in NoTube with Libby Miller, Vicky Buser and others.

edu

Yesterday I took the time to make some visual sanity check of the bibliographic data as processed into a ‘similarity space’ in some Mahout experiments. This is a messy first pass at everything, but I figured it is better to blog something and look for collaborations and feedback, than to chase perfection. For me, the big story is in linking TV materials to the gigantic back-story of context, discussion and debate curated by the world’s libraries. If we can imagine a view of our TV content catalogues, and our libraries, as visual maps, with items clustered by similarity, then NoTube has shown that we can build these into the smartphones and tablets that are increasingly being used as TV remote controls.

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And if the device you’re using to pause/play/stop or rewind your TV also has access to these vast archives as they open up as Linked Data (as well as GPS location data and your Facebook password), all kinds of possibilities arise for linked, annotated and fact-checked TV, as well as for showing a path for libraries to continue to serve as maps of the entertainment, intellectual and scientific terrain around us.

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A brief technical description. Everything you see here was made with Gephi, Mahout and experimental data from the Library Innovation Lab at Harvard, plus a few scripts to glue it all together.

Mahout was given 100,000 extracts from the Harvard collection. Just main and sub-title, a local ID, and a list of topical phrases (mostly drawn from Library of Congress Subject Headings, with some local extensions). I don’t do anything clever with these or their sub-structure or their library-documented inter-relationships. They are treated as atomic codes, and flattened into long pseudo-words such as ‘occupational_diseases_prevention_control’ or ‘french_literature_16th_century_history_and_criticism’,
‘motion_pictures_political_aspects’, ‘songs_high_voice_with_lute’, ‘dance_music_czechoslovakia’, ‘communism_and_culture_soviet_union’. All of human life is there.

David Weinberger has been calling this gigantic scope our problem of the ‘Taxonomy of Everything’, and the label fits. By mushing phrases into fake words, I get to re-use some Mahout tools and avoid writing code. The result is a matrix of 100,000 bibliographic entities, by 27684 unique topical codes. Initially I made the simple test of feeding this as input to Mahout’s K-Means clustering implementation. Manually inspecting the most popular topical codes for each cluster (both where k=12 to put all books in 12 clusters, or k=1000 for more fine-grained groupings), I was impressed by the initial results.

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I only have these in crude text-file form. See hv/_k1000.txt and hv/_twelve.txt (plus dictionary, see big file
_harv_dict.txt ).

For example, in the 1000-cluster version, we get: ‘medical_policy_united_states’, ‘health_care_reform_united_states’, ‘health_policy_united_states’, ‘medical_care_united_states’,
‘delivery_of_health_care_united_states’, ‘medical_economics_united_states’, ‘politics_united_states’, ‘health_services_accessibility_united_states’, ‘insurance_health_united_states’, ‘economics_medical_united_states’.

Or another cluster: ‘brain_physiology’, ‘biological_rhythms’, ‘oscillations’.

How about: ‘museums_collection_management’, ‘museums_history’, ‘archives’, ‘museums_acquisitions’, ‘collectors_and_collecting_history’?

Another, conceptually nearby (but that proximity isn’t visible through this simple clustering approach), ‘art_thefts’, ‘theft_from_museums’, ‘archaeological_thefts’, ‘art_museums’, ‘cultural_property_protection_law_and_legislation’, …

Ok, I am cherry picking. There is some nonsense in there too, but suprisingly little. And probably some associations that might cause offense. But it shows that the tooling is capable (by looking at book/topic associations) at picking out similarities that are significant. Maybe all of this is also available in LCSH SKOS form already, but I doubt it. (A side-goal here is to publish these clusters for re-use elsewhere…).

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So, what if we take this, and instead compute (a bit like we did in NoTube from ratings data) similarity measures between books?

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I tried that, without using much of Mahout’s sophistication. I used its ‘rowsimilarityjob’ facility and generated similarity measures for each book, then threw out most of the similarities except the top 5, later the top 3, from each book. From this point, I moved things over into the Gephi toolkit (“photoshop for graphs”), as I wanted to see how things looked.

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First results shown here. Nodes are books, links are strong similarity measures. Node labels are titles, or sometimes title + subtitle. Some (the black-background ones) use Gephi’s “modularity detection” analysis of the link graph. Others (white background) I imported the 1000 clusters from the earlier Mahout experiments. I tried various of the metrics in Gephi and mapped these to node size. This might fairly be called ‘playing around’ at this stage, but there is at least a pipeline from raw data (eventually Linked Data I hope) through Mahout to Gephi and some visual maps of literature.

1k_overview

What does all this show?

That if we can find a way to open up bibliographic datasets, there are solid opensource tools out there that can give new ways of exploring the items described in the data. That those tools (e.g. Mahout, Gephi) provide many different ways of computing similarity, clustering, and presenting. There is no single ‘right answer’ for how to present literature or TV archive content as a visual map, clustering “like with like”, or arranging neighbourhoods. And there is also no restriction that we must work dataset-by-dataset, either. Why not use what we know from movie/TV recommendations to arrange the similarity space for books? Or vice-versa?

I must emphasise (to return to Ben Fry’s opening remark) that this is a proof-of-concept. It shows some potential, but it is neither a user interface, nor particularly informative. Gephi as a tool for making such visualizations is powerful, but it too is not a viable interface for navigating TV content. However these tools do give us a glimpse of what is hidden in giant and dull-sounding databases, and some hints for how patterns extracted from these collections could help guide us through literature, TV or more.

Next steps? There are many things that could be tried; more than I could attempt. I’d like to get some variant of these 2D maps onto ipad/android tablets, loaded with TV content. I’d like to continue exploring the bridges between content (eg. TED) and library materials, on tablets and PCs. I’d like to look at Mahout’s “collocated terms” extraction tools in more details. These allow us to pull out recurring phrases (e.g. “Zero Sum”, “climate change”, “golden rule”, “high school”, “black holes” were found in TED transcripts). I’ve also tried extracting bi-gram phrases from book titles using the same utility. Such tools offer some prospect of bulk-creating links not just between single items in collections, but between neighbourhood regions in maps such as those shown here. The cross-links will never be perfect, but then what’s a little serendipity between friends?

As full text access to book data looms, and TV archives are finding their way online, we’ll need to find ways of combining user interface, bibliographic and data science skills if we’re really going to make the most of the treasures that are being shared in the Web. Since I’ve only fragments of each, I’m always drawn back to think of this in terms of collaborative work.

A few years ago, Netflix had the vision and cash to pretty much buy the attention of the entire machine learning community for a measly million dollars. Researchers love to have substantive datasets to work with, and the (now retracted) Netflix dataset is still widely sought after. Without a budget to match Netflix’, could we still somehow offer prizes to help get such attention directed towards analysis and exploitation of linked TV and library data? We could offer free access to the world’s literature via a global network of libraries? Except everyone gets that for free already. Maybe we don’t need prizes.

Nearby in the Web: NoTube N-Screen, Flickr slideshow

XMPP untethered – serverless messaging in the core?

In the XMPP session at last february’s FOSDEM I gave a brief demo of some NoTube work on how TV-style remote controls might look with XMPP providing their communication link. For the TV part, I showed Boxee, with a tiny Python script exposing some of its localhost HTTP API to the wider network via XMPP. For the client, I have a ‘my first iphone app‘ approximation of a remote control that speaks a vapourware XMPP remote control protocol, “Buttons”.

The point of all this is about breaking open the Web-TV environment, so that different people and groups get to innovate without having to be colleagues or close-nit business partners. Control your Apple TV with your Google Android phone; or your Google TV with your Apple iPad, or your Boxee box with either. Write smart linking and bookmarking and annotation apps that improve TV for all viewers, rather than only those who’ve bought from the same company as you. I guess I managed to communicate something of this because people clapped generously when my iphone app managed to pause Boxee. This post is about how we might get from evocative but toy demos to a useful and usable protocol, and about one of our largest obstacles: XMPP’s focus on server-mediated communications.

So what happened when I hit the ‘pause’ button on the iphone remote app? Well, the app was already connected to the XMPP network, e.g. signed in as bob.notube@gmail.com via Google Talk’s servers. And so an XMPP stanza flowed out from the room we were in, across to Google somewhere, and then via XMPP server-to-server protocol over to my self-run XMPP server (an ejabberd hosted on Amazon EC2’s east USA zone somewhere). And from there, the message returned finally to Brussels, flowing through whichever Python library I was using to Boxee (signed in as buttons@foaf.tv), causing the video to pause. This happened quite quickly, and generally very quickly; but sometimes it can take more than a second. This can be very frustrating, and while there are workaround (keep-alive messages, smart code that ignores sequences of buffered ‘Pause!’ messages, apps that download metadata and bring more UI to the second screen, …), the problem has a simple cause: it just doesn’t make sense for a ‘pause’ message to cross the atlantic twice, and pass through two XMPP servers, on its the way across the living room from remote control to TV.

But first – why are we even using XMPP at all, rather than say HTTP? Partly because XMPP lets us easily address devices on home networks, that aren’t publically exposed as running a Web server. Partly for the symmetry of the protocol, since ipads, touch tables, smart phones, TVs and media centres all can host and play media items on their own displays, and we may have several such devices in a home setting that need to be in touch with one another. There’s also a certain lazyness; XMPP already defines lots of useful pieces, like buddylist rosters, pubsub notifications, group chats; it has an active and friendly community, and it comes with a healthy collection of tools and libraries. My own interests are around exploring and collectively annotating the huge archives of content that are slowly coming online, and an expectation that this could be a more shared experience, so I’m following an intuition that XMPP provides more useful ‘raw materials’ for social content exploration than raw HTTP. That said, many elements of remote control can be defined and implemented in either environment. But for today, I’m concentrating on the XMPP side.

So back at FOSDEM I raised a couple of concerns, as a long-term XMPP well-wisher but non-insider.

The first was that the technology presents itself as a daunting collection of extensions, each of which might or might not be supported in some toolkit. To this someone (likely Dave Cridland) responded with the reassuring observation that most of these could be implemented by 3rd party app developer simply reading/writing XMPP stanzas. And that in fact pretty much the only ‘core’ piece of XMPP that wasn’t treated as core in most toolkits was the serverless, point-to-point XEP-0174 ‘serverless messaging‘ mode. Everything else, the rest of us mortals could hack in application code. For serverless messaging we are left waiting and hoping for the toolkit maintainers to wire things in, as it generally requires fairly intimate knowledge of the relevant XMPP library.

My second point was in fact related: that if XMPP tools offered better support for serverless operation, then it would open up lots of interesting application options. That we certainly need it for the TV remotes use case to be a credible use of XMPP. Beyond TV remotes, there are obvious applications in the area of open, decentralised social networking. The recent buzz around things like StatusNet, GNU Social, Diaspora*, WebID, OneSocialWeb, alongside the old stuff like FOAF, shows serious interest in letting users take more decentralised control of their online social behaviour. Whether the two parties are in the same room on the same LAN, or halfway around the world from each other, XMPP and its huge collection of field-tested, code-supported extensions is relevant, even when those parties prefer to communicate directly rather than via servers.

With XMPP, app party developers have a well-defined framework into which they can drop ad-hoc stanzas of information; whether it’s a vCard or details of recently played music. This seems too useful a system to reserve solely for communications that are mediated by a server. And indeed, XMPP in theory is not tied to servers; the XEP-0174 spec tells us both how to do local-network bonjour-style discovery, and how to layer XMPP on top of any communication channel that allows XML stanzas to flow back and forth.

From the abstract,

This specification defines how to communicate over local or wide-area networks using the principles of zero-configuration networking for endpoint discovery and the syntax of XML streams and XMPP messaging for real-time communication. This method uses DNS-based Service Discovery and Multicast DNS to discover entities that support the protocol, including their IP addresses and preferred ports. Any two entities can then negotiate a serverless connection using XML streams in order to exchange XMPP message and IQ stanzas.

But somehow this remains a niche use of XMPP. Many of the toolkits have some support for it, perhaps as work-in-progress or a patch, but it remains somewhat ‘out there’ rather than core to the XMPP approach. I’d love to see this change in 2011. The 0174 spec combines a few themes; it talks a lot about discovery, motivated in part by trade-fair and conference type scenarios. When your Apple laptop finds people locally on some network to chat with by “Bonjour”, it’s doing more or less XEP-0174. For the TV remote scenario, I’m interested in having nodes from a normal XMPP network drop down and “re-discover” themselves in a hopefully-lower-latency point to point mode (within some LAN or across the Internet, or between NAT-protected home LANs). There are lots of scenarios when having a server in the loop isn’t needed, or adds cost and risk (latency, single point of failure, privacy concerns).

XEP-0174 continues,

6. Initiating an XML Stream
In order to exchange serverless messages, the initiator and
recipient MUST first establish XML streams between themselves,
as is familiar from RFC 3920.
First, the initiator opens a TCP connection at the IP address
and port discovered via the DNS lookup for an entity and opens
an XML stream to the recipient, which SHOULD include 'to' and
'from' address. [...]

This sounds pretty precise; point-to-point communication is over TCP.  The Security Considerations section discussed some of the different constraints for XMPP in serverless mode, and states that …

To secure communications between serverless entities, it is RECOMMENDED to negotiate the use of TLS and SASL for the XML stream as described in RFC 3920

Having stumbled across Datagram TLS (wikipedia, design writeup), I wonder whether that might also be an option for the layer providing the XML stream between entities.  For example, the chownat tool shows a UDP-based trick for establishing bidirectional communication between entities, even when they’re both behind NAT. I can’t help but wonder whether XMPP could be layered somehow on top of that (OpenSSL libraries have Datagram TLS support already, apparently). There are also other mechanisms I’ve been discussing with Mo McRoberts and Libby Miller lately, e.g. Mo’s dynamic dns / pubkeys idea, or his trick of running an XMPP server in the home, and opening it up via UPnP. But that’s for another time.

So back on my main theme: XMPP is holding itself back by always emphasising the server-mediated role. XEP-0174 has the feel of an afterthought rather than a core part of what the XMPP community offers to the wider technology scene, and the support for it in toolkits lags similarly. I’d love to hear from ‘live and breath XMPP’ folk what exactly they think is needed before it can become a more central part of the XMPP world.

From the TV remotes use case we have a few constraints, such as the need to associate identities established in different environments (eg. via public key). If xmpp:danbri-ipad@danbri.org is already on the server-based XMPP roster of xmpp:nevali-tv@nevali.net, can pubkey info in their XMPP vCards be used to help re-establish trusted communications when the devices find themselves connected in the same LAN? It seems just plain nuts to have a remote control communicate with another box in the same room via transatlantic links through Google Talk and Amazon EC2, and yet that’s the general pattern of normal XMPP communications. What would it take to have more out-of-the-box support for XEP-0174 from the XMPP toolkits? Some combination of beer, money, or a shared sense that this is worth doing and that XMPP has huge potential beyond the server-based communications model it grew from?

Disambiguating with DBpedia

Sketchy notes. Say you’re looking for an identifier for something, and you know it’s a company/organization, and you have a label “Woolworths”.

What can be done to choose amongst the results we find in DBpedia for this crude query?

PREFIX rdfs: <http://www.w3.org/2000/01/rdf-schema#>
select distinct ?x where {
?x a <http://dbpedia.org/ontology/Organisation>;  rdfs:label ?l .
FILTER(REGEX(?l, “Woolworths*”)).
}

More generally, are the tweaks and tricks needed to optimise this sort of disambiguation going to be cross-domain, or do we have to hand-craft them, case by case?

WOT in RDFa?

(This post is written in RDFa…)

To the best of my knowledge, Ludovic Hirlimann‘s PGP fingerprint is 6EFBD26FC7A212B2E093 B9E868F358F6C139647C. You might also be interested in his photos on flickr, or his workplace, Mozilla Messaging. The GPG key details were checked over a Skype video call with me, Ludo and Kaare A. Larsen.

This blog post isn’t signed, the URIs it referenced don’t use SSL, and the image could be switched by evildoers at any time! But the question’s worth asking: is this kind of scruffy key info useful, if there’s enough of it? If I wrote it somehow in Thunderbird’s editor instead, would it be easier to sign? Will 99.9% of humans ever know enough of what’s going on to understand what signing a bunch of complex markup means?

For earlier discussion of this kind of thing, see Joseph Reagle’s Key-free Trust piece (“Does Google Show How the Semantic Web Could Replace Public Key Infrastructure?”). It’s more PKI-free trust than PK-free.

Syndicating trust? Mediawiki, WordPress and OpenID

Fancy title but simple code. A periodic update script is setting user/group membership rules on the FOAF wiki based on a list of trusted (for this purpose) OpenIDs exported from a nearby blog. If you’ve commented on the blog using OpenID and it was accepted, this means you can also perform some admin actions (page deletes, moves, blocking spammers etc.) on the FOAF wiki without any additional fuss.

Both WordPress blogs and Mediawiki wikis have some support for OpenID logins.

The FOAF wiki until recently only had one Sysop and Bureaucrat account (a bureaucrat has the same privileges as a Sysop except for the ability to create new bureaucrat accounts). So I’ve begun an experiment exploring idea of pre-approving certain OpenIDs for bureaucrat activities. For now, I take a list of OpenIDs from my own blog; these appear to be just the good guys, but this might be because only real humans have commented on my blog via OpenID. With a bit of tweaking I’m sure I could write SQL to select out only OpenIDs associated with posts or comments I’ve accepted as non spammy, though.

So now there’s a script I can run (thanks tobyink and others in #swig IRC for help) which compares an externally supplied list of OpenID URIs with those OpenIDs known to the wiki, and upgrades the status of any overlaps to be bureaucrats. Currently the ‘syndication’ is trivial since the sites are on the same machine, and the UI is minimal; I haven’t figured out how best to convey this notion of ‘pre-approved upgrade’ to the people I’m putting in an admin group. Quite reasonably they might object to being misrepresented as contributors; who knows.

But all that aside, take a look and have a think. This kind of approach has a lot going for it. We will have all kinds of lists of people, groups of people, and in many cases we’ll know their OpenIDs. So why not pool what we know? If a blog or wiki has information about an OpenID that shows it is somehow trustworthy, or at least not obviously a spammer, there’s every reason to make notations (eg. FOAF/RDFa) that allow other such sites to harvest and integrate that data…

See also Dan Connolly’s DIG blog post on this, and the current list of Bureaucrats on the FOAF Wiki (and associated documentation). If your names on the list, it just means your OpenID was on a pre-approved list of folk who I trust based on their interactions with my own blog. I’d love to add more sources here and make it genuinely communal.

This is all part of the process of getting FOAF moving again. The brains of FOAF is in the IssueTracker page, and since the site was damaged by spammers and hackers recently I’m trying to make sure we have a happy / wholesome environment for maintaining shared documents. And that’s more than I can do as a solo admin, hence this design for opening things up…

Remote remotes

I’ve just closed the loop on last weekend’s XMPP / Apple Remote hack, using Strophe.js, a library that extends XMPP into normal Web pages. I hope I’ll find some way to use this in the NoTube project (eg. wired up to Web-based video playing in OpenSocial apps), but even if not it has been a useful learning experience. See this screenshot of a live HTML page, receiving and displaying remotely streamed events (green blob: button clicked; grey blob: button released). It doesn’t control any video yet, but you get the idea I hope.

Remote apple remote HTML demo

Remote apple remote HTML demo, screenshot showing a picture of handheld apple remote with a grey blob over the play/pause button, indicating a mouse up event. Also shows debug text in html indicating ButtonUpEvent: PLPZ.

This webclient needs the JID and password details for an XMPP account, and I think these need to be from the same HTTP server the HTML is published on. It works using BOSH or other tricks, but for now I’ve not delved into those details and options. Source is in the Buttons area of the FOAF svn: webclient. I made a set of images, for each button in combination with button-press (‘down’), button-release (‘up’). I’m running my own ejabberd and using an account ‘buttons@foaf.tv’ on the foaf.tv domain. I also use generic XMPP IM accounts on Google Talk, which work fine although I read recently that very chatty use of such services can result in data rates being reduced.

To send local Apple Remote events to such a client, you need a bit of code running on an OSX machine. I’ve done this in a mix of C and Ruby: imremoted.c (binary) to talk to the remote, and the script buttonhole_surfer.rb to re-broadcast the events. The ruby code uses Switchboard and by default loads account credentials from ~/.switchboardrc.

I’ve done a few tests with this setup. It is pretty responsive considering how much indirection is involved: but the demo UI I made could be prettier. The + and – buttons behave differently to the left and right (and menu and play/pause); only + and – send an event immediately. The others wait until the key is released, then send a pair of events. The other keys except for play/pause will also forget what’s happening unless you act quickly. This seems to be a hardware limitation. Apparently Apple are about to ship an updated $20 remote; I hope this aspect of the design is reconsidered, as it limits the UI options for code using these remotes.

I also tried it using two browsers side by side on the same laptop; and two laptops side by side. The events get broadcasted just fine. There is a lot more thinking to do re serious architecture, where passwords and credentials are stored, etc. But XMPP continues to look like a very interesting route.

Finally, why would anyone bother installing compiled C code, Ruby (plus XMPP libraries), their own Jabber server, and so on? Well hopefully, the work can be divided up. Not everyone installs a Jabber server. My thinking is that we can bundle a collection of TV and SPARQL XMPP functionality in a single install, such that local remotes can be used on the network, but also local software (eg. XBMC/Plex/Boxee) can also be exposed to the wider network – whether it’s XMPP .js running inside a Web page as shown here, or an iPhone or a multi-touch table. Each will offer different interaction possibilities, but they can chat away to each other using a common link, and common RDF vocabularies (an area we’re working on in NoTube). If some common micro-protocols over XMPP (sending clicks or sending commands or doing RDF queries) can support compelling functionality, then installing a ‘buttons adaptor’ is something you might do once, with multiple benefits. But for now, apart from the JQbus piece, the protocols are still vapourware. First I wanted to get the basic plumbing in place.

Update: I re-discovered a useful ‘which bosh server do you need?’ which reminds me that there are basically two kinds of BOSH software offering; those that are built into some existing Jabber/XMPP server (like the ejabberd installation I’m using on foaf.tv) and those that are stand-alone connection managers that proxy traffic into the wider XMPP network. In terms of the current experiment, it means the event stream can (within the XMPP universe) come from addresses other than the host running the Web app. So I should also try installing Punjab. Perhaps it will also let webapps served from other hosts (such as opensocial containers) talk to it via JSON tricks? So far I have only managed to serve working Buttons/Strophe HTML from the same host as my Jabber server, ie. foaf.tv. I’m not sure how feasible the cross-domain option is.

Update x2: Three different people have now mentioned opensoundcontrol to me as something similar, at least on a LAN; it clearly deserves some investigation

What kind of Semantic Web researcher are you?

It’s hard to keep secrets in today’s increasingly interconnected, networked world. Social network megasites, mobile phones, webcams and  inter-site syndication can broadcast and amplify the slightest fragment of information. Data linking and interpretation tools can put these fragments together, to paint a detailed picture of your life, both online and off.

This online richness creates offline risk. For example, if you’re going away on holiday, there are hundreds of ways in which potential thieves could learn that your home is vacant and therefore a target for crime: shared calendars, twittered comments from friends or family, flickr’d photographs. Any of these could reveal that your home and possessions sit unwatched, unguarded, presenting an easy target for criminals.

Q: What research challenge does this present to the Semantic Web community? How can we address the concern that Semantic and Social Web technology have more to offer Burglar Bill than to his victims?

A1: We need better technology for limiting the flow of data, proving a right to legitimate access to information, cross-site protocols for deleting leaked or retracted data that flows between sites, and calculating trust metrics for parties requesting data access.

A2: We need to find ways to reconnect people with their neighbours and neighbourhoods, so that homes don’t sit unwatched when their occupants are away.

ps. Dear Bill, I have my iphone, laptop, piggy bank and camera with me…