‘Republic of Letters’ in R / Custom Widgets for Second Screen TV navigation trails

As ever, I write one post that perhaps should’ve been two. This is about the use and linking of datasets that aid ‘second screen’ (smartphone, tablet) TV remotes, and it takes as a quick example a navigation widget and underlying dataset that show us how we might expect to navigate TV archives, in some future age when TV lives more fully in the World Wide Web. I argue that access to the ‘raw data‘ and frameworks for embedding visualisation apps are of equal importance when thinking about innovative ways of exploring the ever-growing archives. All of this comes from many discussions with my NoTube colleagues and other collaborators; rambling scribblyness is all my own.

Ben Hammersley points us at a lovely Flash visualization http://www.stanford.edu/group/toolingup/rplviz/”>Mapping the Republic of Letters”.

From the YouTube overview, “Researchers map thousands of letters exchanged in the 18th century’s “Republic of Letters” and learn at a glance what it once took a lifetime of study to comprehend.”

Mapping the Republic of Letters has at its center a multidimensional data set which spans 300 years and nearly 100,000 letters. We use computing tools that help us to measure and analyze data quantitatively, though that will not take us to our goal. While we use software and computing techniques that were designed for scientific and statistical methods, we are seeking to develop computing tools to enhance humanistic methods, to help us to explore qualitative aspects of the Republic of Letters. The subject of our study and the nature of the material require it. The collections of correspondence and records of travel from this period are incomplete. Of that incomplete material only a fraction has been digitized and is available to us. Making connections and resolving ambiguities in the data is something that can only be done with the help of computing, but cannot be done by computing alone. (from ‘methods and philosophy‘)

screenshot of Republic of Letters app, showing social network links superimposed on map of historical western Europe

See their detailed writeup for more on this fascinating and quite beautiful work. As I’m working lately on linking TV content more deeply into the Web, and on ‘second screen’ navigation, this struck me as just the kind of interface which it ought to be possible to re-use on a tablet PC to explore TV archives. Forgetting for the moment difficulties with Flash on iPads and so on, the idea roughly is that it would be great to embed such a visualization within a TV watching environment, such that when the ‘republic of letters’ widget is focussed on some person, place, or topic, we should have the opportunity to scan the available TV archives for related materials to show.

So a glance at Chrome’s ‘developer tools’ panel gave me a link to the underlying data used by the visualisation. I don’t know exactly whose it is, nor how they want it used, so please treat it with respect. Still, there it is, sat in the Web, in tab-separated format, begging to be used. There’s a lot you can do with the Flash application that I’ve barely touched, but I’m intrigued by the underlying dataset. In particular, where they have the string “Tonson, Jacob”, the data linker in me wants to see a Wikipedia or DBpedia link, since they provide explanation, context, related people, places and themes; all precious assets when trying to scrape together related TV materials to inform, educate or entertain someone with. From a few test searches, it turns out that (many? most?) the correspondents are quite easily matched to Wikipedia: William Congreve, Montagu, 1st earl of Halifax, CharlesHough, bishop of Worcester, John; Stanyan, Abraham;  … Voltaire and others. But what about the data?

Lately I’ve been learning just a little about R, a language used mainly for statistics and related analysis. Here’s what it’ll do ‘out of the box’, in untrained hands:

letters<-read.csv('data.txt',sep='\t', header=TRUE)
v_author = letters$Author=="Voltaire"
v_letters = letters[v_author, ]
Where were Voltaire’s letters sent?
> cbind(summary(v_letters$dest_country))
Austria            2
Belgium            6
Canada             0
Denmark            0
England           26
France          1312
Germany           97
India              0
Ireland            0
Italy             68
Netherlands       22
Portugal           0
Russia             5
Scotland           0
Spain              1
Sweden             0
Switzerland      342
The Netherlands    1
Turkey             0
United States      0
Wales              0
As the overview and video in the ‘Republic of Letters‘ site points out (“Tracking 18th-century “social network” through letters”), the patterns of correspondence eg. between Voltaire and e.g. England, Scotland and Ireland jumps out of the data (and more so its visualisation). There are countless ways this information could be explored, presented, sliced-and-diced. Only a custom app can really make the most of it, and the Republic of Letters work goes a long way in that direction. They also note that
The requirements of our project are very much in sync with current work being done in the linked-data/ semantic web community and in the data visualization community, which is why collaboration with computer science has been critical to our project from the start.
So the raw data in the Web here is a simple table; while we could spend time arguing about whether it would better be expressed in JSON, XML or an RDF notation, I’d rather see some discussion around what we can do with this information. In particular, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of R alongside the data-linking habits that come with RDF. If anyone manages to tease anything interesting from this dataset, perhaps mixed in with DBpedia, do post your results.
And of course there are always other datasets to examine; for example see the Darwin correspondence archives, or the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Correspondence project which has a Dickens-based pilot. While it is wonderful having UI that is tuned to the particulars of some dataset, it is also great when we can re-use UI code to explore similarly structured data from elsewhere. On both the data side and the UI side, this is expensive, tough work to do well. My current concern is to maximise re-use of both UI and data for the particular circumstances of second-screen TV navigation, a scenario rarely a first priority for anyone!
My hope is that custom navigation widgets for this sort of data will be natural components of next-generation TV remote controls, and that TV archives (and other collections) will open up enough of their metadata to draw in (possibly paying) viewers. To achieve this, we need the raw data on both sides to be as connectable as possible, so that application authors can spend their time thinking about what their users really need and can use, rather than on whether they’ve got the ‘right’ Henry Newton.
If we get it right, there’s a central role for librarianship and archivists in curating the public, linked datasets that tell us about the people, places and topics that will allow us to make new navigation trails through Web-connected television, literature and encyclopedia content. And we’ll also see new roles for custom visualizations, once we figure out an embedding framework for TV widgets that lets them communicate with a display system, with other users in the same room or community, and that is designed for cross-referencing datasets that talk about the same entities, topics, places etc.
As I mentioned regarding Lonclass and UDC, collaboration around open shared data often takes place in a furtive atmosphere of guilt and uncertainty. Is it OK to point to the underlying data behind a fantastic visualisation? How can we make sure the hard work that goes into that data curation is acknowledged and rewarded, even while its results flow more freely around the Web, and end up in places (your TV remote!) that may never have been anticipated?

Bruce Schneier: Our Data, Ourselves

Via Libby; Bruce Schneier on data:

In the information age, we all have a data shadow.

We leave data everywhere we go. It’s not just our bank accounts and stock portfolios, or our itemized bills, listing every credit card purchase and telephone call we make. It’s automatic road-toll collection systems, supermarket affinity cards, ATMs and so on.

It’s also our lives. Our love letters and friendly chat. Our personal e-mails and SMS messages. Our business plans, strategies and offhand conversations. Our political leanings and positions. And this is just the data we interact with. We all have shadow selves living in the data banks of hundreds of corporations’ information brokers — information about us that is both surprisingly personal and uncannily complete — except for the errors that you can neither see nor correct.

What happens to our data happens to ourselves.

This shadow self doesn’t just sit there: It’s constantly touched. It’s examined and judged. When we apply for a bank loan, it’s our data that determines whether or not we get it. When we try to board an airplane, it’s our data that determines how thoroughly we get searched — or whether we get to board at all. If the government wants to investigate us, they’re more likely to go through our data than they are to search our homes; for a lot of that data, they don’t even need a warrant.

Who controls our data controls our lives. [...]

Increasingly, we’re going to be seeing this data flow through protocols like OAuth. SemWeb people should get their heads around how this is likely to work. It’s rather likely we’ll see SPARQL data stores with non-public personal data flowing through them; what worries me is that there’s not yet any data management discipline on top of this that’ll help us keep track of who is allowed to see what, and which graphs should be deleted or refreshed at which times.

I recently transcribed some notes from a Robert Scoble post about Facebook and data portability into the FOAF wiki. In it, Scoble reported some comments from Dave Morin of Facebook, regardling data flow. Excerpts:

For instance, what if a user wants to delete his or her info off of Facebook. Today that’s possible. But what about in a really data portable world? After all, in such a world Facebook might have sprayed your email and other data to other social networks. What if those other social networks don’t want to delete your data after you asked Facebook to?

Another case: you want your closest Facebook friends to know your birthday, but not everyone else. How do you make your social network data portable, but make sure that your privacy is secured?

Another case? Which of your data is yours? Which belongs to your friends? And, which belongs to the social network itself? For instance, we can say that my photos that I put on Facebook are mine and that they should also be shared with, say, Flickr or SmugMug, right? How about the comments under those photos? The tags? The privacy data that was entered about them? The voting data? And other stuff that other users might have put onto those photos? Is all of that stuff supposed to be portable? (I’d argue no, cause how would a comment left by a Facebook user on Facebook be good on Flickr?) So, if you argue no, where is the line? And, even if we can all agree on where the line is, how do we get both Facebook and Flickr to build the APIs needed to make that happen?

I’d like to see SPARQL stores that can police their data access behaviour, with clarity for each data graph in the store about the contexts in which that data can be re-exposed, and the schedule by which the data should be refreshed or purged. Making it easy for data to flow is only half the problem…

Opening and closing like flowers (social platform roundupathon)

Closing some tabs…

Stephen Fry writing on ‘social network’ sites back in January (also in the Guardian):

…what an irony! For what is this much-trumpeted social networking but an escape back into that world of the closed online service of 15 or 20 years ago? Is it part of some deep human instinct that we take an organism as open and wild and free as the internet, and wish then to divide it into citadels, into closed-border republics and independent city states? The systole and diastole of history has us opening and closing like a flower: escaping our fortresses and enclosures into the open fields, and then building hedges, villages and cities in which to imprison ourselves again before repeating the process once more. The internet seems to be following this pattern.

How does this help us predict the Next Big Thing? That’s what everyone wants to know, if only because they want to make heaps of money from it. In 1999 Douglas Adams said: “Computer people are the last to guess what’s coming next. I mean, come on, they’re so astonished by the fact that the year 1999 is going to be followed by the year 2000 that it’s costing us billions to prepare for it.”

But let the rise of social networking alert you to the possibility that, even in the futuristic world of the net, the next big thing might just be a return to a made-over old thing.


Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

After checking many of the profiles on your website, I feel it is my duty to inform you that there are some serious errors present. [...]

Lest-we-forget. AOL search log privacy goofup from 2006:

No. 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything.”

And search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga,” several people with the last name Arnold and “homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.”

It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “Those are my searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.

Time magazine punditising on iGoogle, Facebook and OpenSocial:

Google, which makes its money on a free and open Web, was not happy with the Facebook platform. That’s because what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook. Google would much prefer that you come out and play on its platform — the wide-open Web. Don’t stay behind Facebook’s closed doors! Hie thee to the Web and start searching for things. That’s how Google makes its money.

So, last fall, Google rallied all the other major social networks (MySpace, Bebo, Hi5 and so on) and announced a new initiative called OpenSocial. OpenSocial wants to be like Facebook’s platform, only much bigger: Widget makers can write applications for it and they can run anywhere — on MySpace, Bebo and Google’s own social network, Orkut, which is very big in Brazil.

Google’s platform could actually dwarf Facebook — if it ever gets off the ground.

Meanwhile on the widget and webapp security front, we have “BBC exposes Facebook flaw” (information about your buddies is accessible to apps you install; information about you is accessible to apps they install). Also see Thomas Roessler’s comments to my Nokiana post for links to a couple of great presentations he made on widget security. This includes a big oopsie with the Google Mail widget for MacOSX. Over in Ars Technica we learn that KDE 4.1 alpha 1 now has improved widget powers, including “preliminary support for SuperKaramba and Mac OS X Dashboard widgets“. Wonder if I can read my Gmail there…

As Stephen Fry says,  these things are “opening and closing like a flower”. The big hosted social sites have a certain oversimplifying retardedness about them. But the ability for code to go visit data (the widget/gadget model), is I think as valid as the opendata model where data flows around to visit code. I am optimistic that good things will come out of this ferment.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting several of the Google OpenSocial crew in London. They took my grumbling about accessibility issues pretty well, and I hope to continue that conversation. Industry politics and punditry aside, I’m impressed with their professionalism and with the tie-in to an opensource implementation through Apache’s ShinDig project. The OpenSocial specs list is open to the public, where Cassie has just announced that “all 0.8 opensocial and gadgets spec changes have been resolved” (after a heroic slog through the issue list). I’m barely tracking the detail of discussion there, things are moving fast. There’s now a proposed REST API, for example; and I learned in London about plans for a formatting/templating system, which might be one mechanism for getting FOAF/RDF out of OpenSocial containers.

If OpenSocial continues to grow and gather opensource mindshare, it’s possible Facebook will throw some chunks of their platform over the wall (ie. “do an Adobe“). And it’ll probably be left to W3C to clean up the ensuring mess and fragmentation, but I guess that’s what they’re there for. Meanwhile there’s plenty yet to be figured out, … I think we’re in a pre-standards experimentation phase, regardless of how stable or mature we’re told these platforms are.

The fundamental tension here is that we want open data, open platforms, … for data and code to flow freely, but to protect the privacy, lives and blushes of those it describes. A tricky balance. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy, that we’ve got it figured out, or that all we need to do is “tear down the walls”.

Opening and closing like flowers…

Google Social Graph API, privacy and the public record

I’m digesting some of the reactions to Google’s recently announced Social Graph API. ReadWriteWeb ask whether this is a creeping privacy violation, and danah boyd has a thoughtful post raising concerns about whether the privileged tech elite have any right to experiment in this way with the online lives of those who are lack status, knowledge of these obscure technologies, and who may be amongst the more vulnerable users of the social Web.

While I tend to agree with Tim O’Reilly that privacy by obscurity is dead, I’m not of the “privacy is dead, get over it” school of thought. Tim argues,

The counter-argument is that all this data is available anyway, and that by making it more visible, we raise people’s awareness and ultimately their behavior. I’m in the latter camp. It’s a lot like the evolutionary value of pain. Search creates feedback loops that allow us to learn from and modify our behavior. A false sense of security helps bad actors more than tools that make information more visible.

There’s a danger here of technologists seeming to blame those we’re causing pain for. As danah says, “Think about whistle blowers, women or queer folk in repressive societies, journalists, etc.”. Not everyone knows their DTD from their TCP, or understand anything of how search engines, HTML or hyperlinks work. And many folk have more urgent things to focus on than learning such obscurities, let alone understanding the practical privacy, safety and reputation-related implications of their technology-mediated deeds.

Web technologists have responsibilities to the users of the Web, and while media education and literacy are important, those who are shaping and re-shaping the Web ought to be spending serious time on a daily basis struggling to come up with better ways of allowing humans to act and interact online without other parties snooping. The end of privacy by obscurity should not mean the death of privacy.

Privacy is not dead, and we will not get over it.

But it does need to be understood in the context of the public record. The reason I am enthusiastic about the Google work is that it shines a big bright light on the things people are currently putting into the public record. And it does so in a way that should allow people to build better online environments for those who do want their public actions visible, while providing immediate – and sometimes painful – feedback to those who have over-exposed themselves in the Web, and wish to backpedal.

I hope Google can put a user support mechanism on this. I know from our experience in the FOAF community, even with small scale and obscure aggregators, people will find themselves and demand to be “taken down”. While any particular aggregator can remove or hide such data, unless the data is tracked back to its source, it’ll crop up elsewhere in the Web.

I think the argument that FOAF and XFN are particularly special here is a big mistake. Web technologies used correctly (posh – “plain old semantic html” in microformats-speak) already facilitate such techniques. And Google is far from the only search engine in existence. Short of obfuscating all text inside images, personal data from these sites is readily harvestable.

ReadWriteWeb comment:

None the less, apparently the absence of XFN/FOAF data in your social network is no assurance that it won’t be pulled into the new Google API, either. The Google API page says “we currently index the public Web for XHTML Friends Network (XFN), Friend of a Friend (FOAF) markup and other publicly declared connections.” In other words, it’s not opt-in by even publishers – they aren’t required to make their information available in marked-up code.

The Web itself is built from marked-up code, and this is a thing of huge benefit to humanity. Both microformats and the Semantic Web community share the perspective that the Web’s core technologies (HTML, XHTML, XML, URIs) are properly consumed both by machines and by humans, and that any efforts to create documents that are usable only by (certain fortunate) humans is anti-social and discriminatory.

The Web Accessibility movement have worked incredibly hard over many years to encourage Web designers to create well marked up pages, where the meaning of the content is as mechanically evident as possible. The more evident the meaning of a document, the easier it is to repurpose it or present it through alternate means. This goal of device-independent, well marked up Web content is one that unites the accessibility, Mobile Web, Web 2.0, microformat and Semantic Web efforts. Perhaps the most obvious case is for blind and partially sighted users, but good markup can also benefit those with the inability to use a mouse or keyboard. Beyond accessibility, many millions of Web users (many poor, and in poor countries) will have access to the Web only via mobile phones. My former employer W3C has just published a draft document, “Experiences Shared by People with Disabilities and by People Using Mobile Devices”. Last month in Bangalore, W3C held a Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries (see executive summary).

I read both Tim’s post, and danah’s post, and I agree with large parts of what they’re both saying. But not quite with either of them, so all I can think to do is spell out some of my perhaps previously unarticulated assumptions.

  • There is no huge difference in principle between “normal” HTML Web pages and XFN or FOAF. Textual markup is what the Web is built from.
  • FOAF and XFN take some of the guesswork out of interpreting markup. But other technologies (javascript, perl, XSLT/GRDDL) can also transform vague markup into more machine-friendly markup. FOAF/XFN simply make this process easier and less heuristic, less error prone.
  • Google was not the first search engine, it is not the only search engine, and it will not be the last search engine. To obsess on Google’s behaviour here is to mistake Google for the Web.
  • Deeds that are on the public record in the Web may come to light months or years later; Google’s opening up of the (already public, but fragmented) Usenet historical record is a good example here.
  • Arguing against good markup practice on the Web (accessible, device independent markup) is something that may hurt underprivileged users (with disabilities, or limited access via mobile, high bandwidth costs etc).
  • Good markup allows content to be automatically summarised and re-presented to suit a variety of means of interaction and navigation (eg. voice browsers, screen readers, small screens, non-mouse navigation etc).
  • Good markup also makes it possible for search engines, crawlers and aggregators to offer richer services.

The difference between Google crawling FOAF/XFN from LiveJournal, versus extracting similar information via custom scripts from MySpace, is interesting and important solely to geeks. Mainstream users have no idea of such distinctions. When LiveJournal originally launched their FOAF files in 2004, the rule they followed was a pretty sensible one: if the information was there in the HTML pages, they’d also expose it in FOAF.

We need to be careful of taking a ruthless “you can’t make an omelete without breaking eggs” line here. Whatever we do, people will suffer. If the Web is made inaccessible, with information hidden inside image files or otherwise obfuscated, we exclude a huge constituency of users. If we shine a light on the public record, as Google have done, we’ll embarass, expose and even potentially risk harm to the people described by these interlinked documents. And if we stick our head in the sand and pretend that these folk aren’t exposed, I predict this will come back to bite us in the butt in a few months or years, since all that data is out there, being crawled, indexed and analysed by parties other than Google. Parties with less to lose, and more to gain.

So what to do? I think several activities need to happen in parallel:

  • Best practice codes for those who expose, and those who aggregate, social Web data
  • Improved media literacy education for those who are unwittingly exposing too much of themselves online
  • Technology development around decentralised, non-public record communication and community tools (eg. via Jabber/XMPP)

Any search engine at all, today, is capable of supporting the following bit of mischief:

Take some starting point a collection of user profiles on a public site. Extract all the usernames. Find the ones that appear in the Web less than say 10,000 times, and on other sites. Assume these are unique userIDs and crawl the pages they appear in, do some heuristic name matching, … and you’ll have a pile of smushed identities, perhaps linking professional and dating sites, or drunken college photos to respectable-new-life. No FOAF needed.

The answer I think isn’t to beat up on the aggregators, it’s to improve the Web experience such that people can have real privacy when they need it, rather than the misleading illusion of privacy. This isn’t going to be easy, but I don’t see a credible alternative.

“The World is now closed”

Facebook in many ways is pretty open for a ‘social networking’ site. It gives extension apps a good amount of access to both data and UI. But the closed world language employed in their UI betrays the immodest assumption “Facebook knows all”.

  • Eric Childress and Stuart Weibel are now friends with Charles McCathienevile.
  • John Doe is now in a relationship.
  • You have 210 friends.

To state the obvious: maybe Eric, Stu and Chaals were already friends. Maybe Facebook was the last to know about John’s relationship; maybe friendship isn’t countable. As the walls between social networking sites slowly melt (I put Jabber/XMPP first here, with OpenID, FOAF, SPARQL and XFN as helper apps), me and my 210 closest friends will share fragments of our lives with a wide variety of sites. If we choose to make those descriptions linkable, the linked sites will increasingly need to refine their UI text to be a little more modest: even the biggest site doesn’t get the full story.

Closed World Assumption (Abort/Retry/Fail)
Facebook are far from alone in this (see this Xbox screenshot too, “You do not have any friends!”); but even with 35M users, the mistake is jarring, and not just to Semantic Web geeks of the missing isn’t broken school. It’s simply a mistake to fail to distinguish the world from its description, or the territory from the map.

A description of me and my friends hosted by a big Web site isn’t “my social network”. Those sites are just a database containing claims made by different people, some verified, some not. And with, inevitably, lots missing. My “social network” is an abstractification of a set of interlinked real-world histories. You could make the case that there has only ever been one “social network” since the distant beginnings of human society; certainly those who try to do geneology with Web data formats run into this in a weaker form, including the need to balance competing and partial information. We can do better than categorised “buddylists” when describing people, their inter-connections and relationships. And in many ways Facebook is doing just great here. Aside from the Pirates-vs-Ninjas noise, many extension applications on Facebook allow arbitrary events from elsewhere in the Web to bubble up through their service and be seen (or filtered) by others who are linked to me in their database. For example:

Facebook is good at reporting events, generally. Especially those sourced outside the system. Where it isn’t so great is when reporting internal-events, eg. someone telling it about a relationship. Event descriptions are nice things to syndicate btw since they never go out of date. Syndicating descriptions of the changeable properties of the world, on the other hand, is more slippery since you need to have all other relevant facts to be able to say how the world is right now (or implicitly, how it used to be, before). “Dan has painted his car red” versus “Dan’s car is now red”. “Dan has bookmarked the Jabber user profile spec” versus “Dan now has 1621 bookmarks”. “Dan has added Charles to his Facebook profile” versus “Dan is now friends with Charles”.

We need better UI that reflects what’s really going on. There will be users who choose to live much of their lives in public view, spread across sites, sharing enough information for these accounts to be linked. Hopefully they’ll be as privacy-smart and selective as Pew suggests. Personas and ‘characters’ can be spread across sites without either site necessarily revealing a real-world identity; secrets are keepable, at least in theory. But we will see people’s behaviour and claims from one site leak into another, and with approval. I don’t think this will be just through some giant “social graph” of strictly enumerated relationships, but through a haze of vaguer data.

What we’re most missing is a style of end-user UI here that educates users about this world that spans websites, couching things in terms of claims hosted in sites, rather than in absolutist terms. I suppose I probably don’t have 210 “friends” (whatever that means) in real life, although I know a lot of great people and am happy to be linked to them online. But I have 210 entries in a Facebook-hosted database. My email whitelist file has 8785 email addresses in it currently; email accounts that I’m prepared to assume aren’t sending me spam. I’m sure I can’t have 8785 friends. My Google Mail (and hence GTalk Jabber) account claims 682 contacts, and has some mysterious relationship to my Orkut account where I have 200+ (more randomly selected) friends. And now the OpenID roster on my blog gives another list (as of today, 19 OpenIDs that made it past the WordPress spam filter). Modern social websites shouldn’t try to tell me how many friends I have; that’s just silly. And they shouldn’t assume their database knows it all. What they can do is try to tell me things that are interesting to me, with some emphasis on things that touch my immediate world and the extended world of those I’m variously connected to.

So what am I getting at here? I guess it’s just that we need these big social sites to move away from making teen-talk claims about how the world is – “Sally (now) loves John” – and instead become reflectors for the things people are saying, “Sally announces that she’s in love with John”; “John says that he used to work for Microsoft” versus “John worked for Microsoft 2004-2006″; “Stanford University says Sally was awarded a PhD in 2008″. Today’s young internet users are growing up fast, and the Web around them needs also to mature.

One of the most puzzling criticisms you’ll often hear about the Semantic Web initiative is that is requires a single universal truth, a monolithic ontology to model all of human knowledge. Those of us in the SW community know that this isn’t so; we’ve been saying for a long time that our (meta)data architecture is designed to allow people to publish claims “in which
statements can draw upon multiple vocabularies that are managed in a decentralised fashion by various communities of expertise.”
As the SemWeb technology stack now has a much better approach to representing data provenance (SPARQL named graphs replacing RDF’99 statement reification) I believe we should now be putting more emphasis on a related theme: Semantic Web data can represent disputes, competing claims, and contradictions. And we can query it in an SQL-like language (SPARQL) that allows us to ask questions not just of some all-knowing database, but about what different databases are telling us.

The closed world approach to data gives us a lot, don’t get me wrong. I’m not the only one with a love-hate relationship with SQL. There are many optimisations we can do in a traditional SQL or XML Schema environment which become hard in an RDF context. In particular, going “open world” makes for a harder job when hosting and managing data rather than merely aggregating and integrating it. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a modern Web data environment for aggregating claims of the “Stanford University says Sally was awarded a PhD in 1995″ form, SPARQL has a lot to offer.

When we’re querying a single, all-knowing, all-trusted database, SQL will do the job (eg. see Facebook’s FQL for example). When we need to take a bit more care with “who said what” and “according to whom?” aspects, coupled with schema extensibility and frequently missing data, SQL starts to hurt. If we’re aggregating (and building UI for) ‘social web’ claims about the world rather than simple buddylists (which XMPP/Jabber gives us out of the box), I suspect aggregators will get burned unless they take care to keep careful track of who said what, whether using SPARQL or some home-grown database system in the same spirit. And I think they’ll find that doing so will be peculiarly rewarding, giving us a foundation for applications that do substantially more than merely listing your buddies…