Beautiful plumage: Topic Maps Not Dead Yet

Echoing recent discussion of Semantic Web “Killer Apps”, an “are Topic Maps dead?” thread on the topicmaps mailing list. Signs of life offered include www.fuzzzy.com (‘Collaborative, semantic and democratic social bookmarking’, Topic Maps meet social networking; featured tag: ‘topic maps‘) and a longer-list from Are Gulbrandsen who suggests a predictable hype-cycle dropoff is occuring, as well as a migration of discussions from email into the blog world. For which, see the topicmaps planet aggregator, and through which I indirectly find Steve Pepper’s blog and an interesting post on how TMs relate to RDF, OWL and the Semantic Web (though I’d have hoped for some mention of SKOS too).

Are Gulbrandsen also cites NZETC (the New Zealand Electronic Tech Centre), winner of The Topic Maps Application of the year award at the Topic Maps 2008 conference; see Conal Tuohy’s presentation on Topic Maps for Cultural Heritage Collections (slides in PDF). On NZETC’s work: “It may not look that interesting to many people used to flashy web 2.0 sites, but to anybody who have been looking at library systems it’s a paradigm shift“.

Other Topic Map work highlighted: RAMline (Royal Academy of Music rewriting musical history). “A long-term research project into the mapping of three axes of musical time: the historical, the functional, and musical time itself.”; David Weinberger blogged about this work recently. Also MIPS / Institute for Bioinformatics and Systems Biology who “attempt to explain the complexity of life with Topic Maps” (see presentation from Volker Stümpflen (PDF); also a TMRA’07 talk).

Finally, pointers to opensource developer tools: Ruby Topic Maps and Wandora (Java/GPL), an extraction/mapping and publishing system which amongst other things can import RDF.

Topic Maps are clearly not dead, and the Web’s a richer environment because of this. They may not have set the world on fire but people are finding value in the specs and tools, while also exploring interop with RDF and other related technologies. My hunch is that we’ll continue to see a slow drift towards the use of RDF/OWL plus SKOS for apps that might otherwise have been addressed using TopicMaps, and a continued pragmatism from tool and app developers who see all these things as ways to solve problems, rather than as ends in themselves.

Just as with RDFa, GRDDL and Microformats, it is good and healthy for the Web community to be exploring multiple similar strands of activity. We’re smart enough to be able to flow data across these divides when needed, and having only a single technology stack is I think both intellectually limiting, socially impractical, and technologically short-sighted.