(Disclaimer: Every now and again, I like to break up my bad cartoon blogs with some provocative, opinionated, ill-informed ramblings. This is one such entry.)
I really want the Semantic Web (SW) explosion to happen, and sooner rather than later. But a
sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach tells me that it’s still a long way off. And worse still,
that the Web 2.0 momentum could push it further back. Let me explain.
Without getting into a protracted argument over the exact definition of “Web 2.0″, let’s go with
the general consensus that it’s all about people. That’s it. It doesn’t care about
technology or standards; use AJAX, SVG, FOAF, PHP, Ruby, XHTML, P2P or XSL - it doesn’t matter, just
make sure that it’s people-oriented. Let people create, collaborate, share and interact. Who cares
what the back-end uses, or how it does it - just give “Power To The People”, quickly and
The Semantic Web is the polar opposite: standardise all your data in RDF; encode it in XML (OK,
so there’s also N3, but it’s probably mostly going to end up as XML); create your OWL. And then, once you
have all this standardised data, let the machines loose on it! Because this data is for computer
consumption, the SW should be more or less transparent to its users.
So whilst Web 2.0 is about high-level (user experience) and immediate benefits, the SW is a
low-level (data), long-term solution. Users are seeing all this cool, flexible new
Web 2.0 stuff, and it’s making the SW look even more complex, rigid and unnecessary. Both
technologies appear similar to the outside world - share and aggregate data - but
Web 2.0 has a pretty interface, and is here and now. And thus the (finite) budgets of
organisations are being spent on wikis and blogs, rather than RDF database converters.
But don’t write off the SW. What do we really want from the future web? I mean
really want? Web 2.0 has given us more efficient maps. We can share photos. And
collectively criticise the same websites. But, you know something - so what? Are these the
impacts we dream about making; is this our legacy when we die? The SW could save lives. Because it could enable the identification of otherwise un-detected patterns in
large-scale, distributed data sets, it could help find medical cures and aid other problems in
life sciences. It could help detect and prevent organised crime and terrorist activity. It might
help analyse geological or meteorological data and limit the destruction of natural disasters. It
could help detect and contain viruses and outbreaks. It could help distribute and re-use important
educational resources. These are bold claims, but these are the goals we should be aiming for, and
this is why we need the SW to flourish. We can’t let a fancy map get in our way.
What’s the way forward? Well, we need the SW to take advantage of the Web 2.0 pile-driver.
As Daniel Weitzner recently told me, it’s all
about finding the “sweet spot” between the formal SW
semantics and the flexible, free-form Web 2.0. GRDDL
is one such project hoping to help us find this elusive middle-ground, by re-purposing existing web content into
We can also take advantage of the flexibility of Web 2.0. As it is technology agnostic, we
can use SW technologies in our Web 2.0 applications and get the best of both worlds (the FOAF RDF
vocabulary has already succeeded at being integrated into many social networking applications).
So lets push things forward. The Web 2.0 applications are amazing, efficient, and without doubt
interesting and a huge step forward. But don’t let them distract from the benefits that the SW could
realise. Only 10% of the world population have internet access, and those of us who regularly use Web
2.0 applications a very small niche within this. The SW benefits are further reaching; giving us
developers new toys to play with, but also potentially impacting the lives of the other 6 billion
people in this world without internet access.