Southampton Uni shows way to a truly open web

Making Berners-Lee's vision a reality

Bag it, tag it and let's see what else is there

garcia_criminal_minds

Can you cross-reference tiger
owners with all the moustache-
wearing sous chefs within a 4-mile radius?

"People want controversy," says Gutteridge. "It's more useful if you use a universally unique key [such as a URI, about which more later] of public data, more useful wherever possible to use the same keys as other people to join up the data. Well 'doh' ... But the common response is 'I thought all computers already did that'," he says.

"On TV when you see that person who says 'can you cross-reference it with all the people who have blue SUVs and like Golf' and the FBI researcher just goes 'yes, sure', *taps furiously into pretend keyboard on desk*. Well yeah, we're trying to build that, cross-referenced with massive privacy issues. But open data researchers are the ones who are most concerned about privacy because we're the ones who know what's going to happen next."

However, privacy isn't the only issue potentially hampering university researchers who are keen to push the linked data agenda. Web standards are a thorny issue, too.

"Resource Description Framework [RDF, which uses the SPARQL query language, which is the data model of choice in Southampton as well as for the government's own data.gov.uk effort] is simple to use; it has got this mystique amongst some people as being very complicated and difficult, but it has a very simple data model," says John Goodwin, who is the Ordnance Survey's senior research scientist, who just so happens to have a PhD in time travel – so maybe he can see into the future ...

goodwin

Linked data's timelord, perhaps?

"There are a lot of people in the web developer community who do prefer standard ways of doing things that they are used to such as APIs, XML, JSON. 'This is another new thing, why do I have to learn this?' tends to be the argument among hold-outs.

"With linked data it's a big bucket of datasets. You can keep enhancing it and adding stuff, which makes it much more flexible than other software modelling systems.”

But it remains a relatively niche skill in developer circles. The UK is at the forefront on linked data projects, with smaller efforts underway in the US, Germany and Ireland.

"There are probably less than 1,000 people in the world who can just sit down and write RDF. Build a full linked data website using RDF, backend, etc ... The whole point is we now need to demystify the whole thing," says Gutteridge.

"The skills of taking a data system and understanding how to map it into RDF so that it can be useful is bloody hard. It requires someone who can see the data, understand the structure, understand how it will be used and then map between two spaces in their head."

He simply wants to get on with the work rather than see the UoS and other universities caught up in a data-churning loop.

So how does the metadata encoder for the semantic web work?

"RDF comes in triples – a thing [subject] is related to another thing [predicate] via some kind of property [object]," explains Goodwin.

"Each of these things is identified by URI [uniform resource identifier]. Think URL, roughly speaking. But a URI can represent absolutely anything. All web addresses are URIs but not the other way around."

In other words, a set of rules need to be adhered to, to get data published on the web in a meaningful yet heavily distributed way. According to both Gutteridge and Goodwin, more linked data is available to them today compared to just two years ago. But for such a project to prove a success in the long term, many more web developers need to join the show.

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