Shadows on the Web

This is a quick note, inspired by the recent burst of posts passing through Planet RDF about RDF, WebArch and a second “shadow” Web. Actually it’s not about that thread at all, except to note that Ian Davis asks just the right kind of questions when thinking about the WebArch claim that the Web ships with a hardcoded, timeless and built-in ontology, carving up the Universe between “information resources” and “non-information resources”. Various Talis folk are heading towards Bristol this week, so I expect we’ll pick up this theme offline again shortly! (Various other Talis folk – I’m happy to be counted as Talis person, even if they choose the worst picture of me for their blog :).

Anyhow, I made my peace with the TAG’s http-range-14 resolution long ago, and prefer the status quo to a situation where “/”-terminated namespaces are treated as risky and broken (as was the case pre-2005). But RDFa brings the “#” WebArch mess back to the forefront, since RDF and HTML can be blended within the same environment. Perhaps – reluctantly – we do need to revisit this perma-thread one last time. But not today! All I wanted to write about right now is the “shadow” metaphor. It crops up in Ian’s posts, and he cites Rob McCool’s writings. Since I’m unequiped with an IEEE login, I’m unsure where the metaphor originated. Ian’s usage is in terms of RDF creating a redundant and secondary structure that ordinary Web users don’t engage with, ie. a “shadow of the real thing”. I’m not going to pursue that point here, except to say I have sympathies, but am not too worried. GRDDL, RDFa etc help.

Instead, I’m going to suggest that we recycle the metaphor, since (when turned on its head) it gives an interesting metaphorical account of what the SW is all about. Like all 1-line metaphorical explanations of complex systems, the real value comes in picking it apart, and seeing where it doesn’t quote hold:

‘Web documents are the shadows cast on the Web by things in the world.

What do I mean here? Perhaps this is just pretentious, I’m not sure :) Let’s go back to the beginnings of the SW effort to picture this. In 1994 TimBL gave a Plenary talk at the first International WWW Conference. Amongst other things, he announced the creation of W3C, and described the task ahead of us in the Semantic Web community. This was two years before we had PICS, and three years before the first RDF drafts. People were all excited about Mosaic, to help date this. But even then, the description was clear, and well illustrated in a series of cartoon diagrams, eg:

TimBL 1994 Web semantics diagram

I’ve always liked these diagrams, and the words that went with them.

So much so that when I had the luxury of my own EU project to play with, they got reworked for us by Liz Turner: we made postcards and tshirts, which Libby delighted in sending to countless semwebbers to say “thanks!”. Here’s the postcard version:

SWAD-Europe postcard

The basic idea is just that Web documents are not intrinsically interesting things; what’s interesting, generally, is what they’re about. Web users don’t generally care much about sequences of unicode characters or bytes; we care about what they mean in our real lives. The objects they’re about, the agreements they describe, the real-world relationships and claims they capture. There is a Web of relationships in the world, describable in countless ways by countless people, and the information we put into the Web is just a pale shadow of that.

The Web according to TimBL, back in ’94:

To a computer, then, the web is a flat, boring world devoid of meaning. This is a pity, as in fact documents on the web describe real objects and imaginary concepts, and give particular relationships between them. For example, a document might describe a person. The title document to a house describes a house and also the ownership relation with a person. [...]

On this thinking, Web documents are the secondary thing; the shadow. What matters is the world and it’s mapping into digital documents, rather than the digital stuff alone. The shadow metaphor breaks down a little, if you think of the light source as something like the Sun, ie. with each real-world entity shadowed by a single (authoritative?) document in the Web. Life’s not like that, and the Web’s not like that either. Objects and relationships in the real world show up in numerous ways on the Web; or sometimes (thankfully) not at all. If Web documents can be thought of as shadows, they’re shadows cast in many lights, many colours, and by multiple independent light sources. Some indistinct, soft and flattering; occasionally frustratingly vague. Others bright, harshly precise and rigorously scientific (and correspondingly expensive and experty to use). But the core story is that it’s the same shared world that we’re seeing in all these different lights, and that the Web and the world are both richer because life is illustrated from multiple perspectives, and because the results can be visible to all.

The Semantic Web is, on this story, not a shadow of the real Web, but a story about how the Web is a shadow of the world. The Semantic Web is, in fact, much more like a 1970s disco than a shadow…

Who, what, where, when?

A “Who? what? where? when?” of the Semantic Web is taking shape nicely.

Danny Ayers shows some work with FOAF and the hCard microformat, picking up a theme first explored by Dan Connolly back in 2000: inter-conversion between RDF and HTML person descriptions. Danny generates hCards from SPARQL queries of FOAF, an approach which would pair nicely with GRDDL for going in the other direction.

Meanwhile at W3C, the closing days of the SW Best Practices Group have recently produced a draft of an RDF/OWL Representation of Wordnet. Wordnet is a fantastic resource, containing descriptions of pretty much every word in the English language. Anyone who has spent time in committees, deciding which terms to include in some schema/vocabulary, must surely feel the appeal of a schema which simply contains all possible words. There are essentially two approaches to putting Wordnet into the Semantic Web. A lexically-oriented approach, such as the one published at W3C for Wordnet 2.0, presents a description of words. It mirrors the structure of wordnet itself (verbs, nouns, synsets etc.). Consequently it can be a complete and unjudgemental reflection into RDF of all the work done by the Wordnet team.

The alternate, and complementary, approach is to explore ways of projecting the contents of Wordnet into an ontology, so that category terms (from the noun hierarchy) in Wordnet become classes in RDF. I made a simplistic approach at this some time back (see overview). It has appeal (alonside the linguistic version) because it allows RDF to be used to describe instances of classes for each concept in wordnet, with other properties of those instances. See WhyWordnetIsCool in the FOAF wiki for an example of Wordnet’s coverage of everyday objects.

So, getting Wordnet moving into the SW is great step. It gives us URIs to identify a huge number of everyday concepts. It’s coverage isn’t complete, and it’s ontology is kinda quirky. Aldo Gangemi and others have worked on tidying up the hierarchy; I believe only for version 1.6 of Wordnet so far. I hope that work will eventually get published at W3C or elsewhere as stable URIs we can all use.

In addition to Wordnet there are various other efforts that give types that can be used for the “what” of “who/what/where/when”. I’ve been talking with Rob McCool about re-publishing a version of the old TAP knowledge base. The TAP project is now closed, with Rob working for Yahoo and Guha at Google. Stanford maintain the site but aren’t working on it. So I’ve been working on a quick cleanup (wellformed RDF/XML etc.) of TAP that could get it into more mainstream use. TAP, unlike Wordnet, has more modern everyday commercial concepts (have a look), as well as a lot of specific named instances of these classes.

Which brings me to (Semantic) Wikipedia; another approach to identifying things and their types on the Semantic Web. A while back we added isPrimaryTopicOf to FOAF, to make it easier to piggyback on Wikipedia for RDF-identifying things that have Wiki (and other) pages about them. The Semantic Mediawiki project goes much much further in this direction, providing a rich mapping (classes etc.) into RDF for much of Wikipedia’s more data-oriented content. Very exciting, especially if it gets into the main codebase.

So I think the combination of things like Wordnet, TAP, Wikipedia, and instance-identifying strategies such as “isPrimaryTopicOf”, will give us a solid base for identifying what the things are that we’re describing in the Semantic Web.

And regarding. “Where?” and “when?” … on the UI front, we saw a couple of announcements recently: OpenLayers v1.0, which provides Google-maps-like UI functionality, but opensource and standards friendly. And for ‘when’, a similar offering: the timeline widget. This should allow for fancy UIs to be wired in with RDF calendar or RDF-geo tagged data.

Talking of which… good news of the week: W3C has just announced a Geo incubator group (see detailed charter), whose mission includes updates for the basic Geo (ie. lat/long etc) vocabulary we created in the SW Interest Group.

Ok, I’ve gone on at enough length already, so I’ll talk about SKOS another time. In brief – it fits in here in a few places. When extended with more lexical stuff (for describing terms, eg. multi-lingual thesauri) it could be used as a base for representing the lexically-oriented version of Wordnet. And it also fits in nicely with Wikipedia, I believe.

Last thing, don’t get me wrong — I’m not claiming these vocabs and datasets and bits of UI are “the” way to do ‘who/what/where/when’ on the Semantic Web. They’re each one of several options. But it is great to have a whole pile of viable options at last :)