Jim Hendler at the INSEMTIVE 2008 Workshop

This post was originally published on the Talis “Nodalities” blog.

Along with a number of my colleagues, I’m currently attending the ISWC 2008 conference in Karlsruhe, Germany. Yesterday I attended the INSEMTIVE workshop (“Incentives for the Semantic Web”) which aimed to explore incentives for the creation of semantic web content, i.e. encourage the creation of more structured metadata. The workshop papers are available to browse online or you can download the complete proceedings. There were a real mix of papers, covering specific issues such as extraction of semantics from tagging, and identifying information needs of a community by analysing search patterns, through to position papers that attempted to highlight shortcomings in current semantic web applications that deter people from creating metadata.

I found the position papers most interesting if only because they provided confirmation of something that I’ve been thinking for a while now: that people will (and do) create metadata when there are obvious and immediate benefits in them doing so. No-one really consciously sits down to share or create metadata: they sit down to do a specific task and metadata drops out as a side-effect. For me this makes much of the problem highlighted by the workshop one of interaction design: how do we build good task-oriented user interfaces that encourage the creation of semantic web metadata, and how can we illustrate the benefits of semantic web technologies in an incremental fashion? In my opinion solving this will require close collaboration between semantic web researchers and developers, and interaction designers.

The end of the workshop was a discussion session chaired by Jim Hendler. Hendler chose to do a retrospective of some older presentations to explore how thinking has evolved (or not!) with respect to drivers towards the development of the semantic web.

Starting in 1999, Hendler showed some slides from DAML strategy talks that emphasised the need for a number of different areas to align before a real marketplace can be created for semantic web content and applications. These areas were tools, users, and languages (e.g. OWL, etc). Hendler noted that the Semantic Web community had mistakenly focused too heavily on languages and not enough on the other areas. He also thought that “Web 2.0″ had focused primarily on the users, to a lesser extent on the tools, and very little on the language aspects. Hendler thought that this alignment was now taking place.

Moving forward in time to show some slides from 2001-2002, Hendler introduced the idea that the development of the web itself will “force” the evolution of the semantic web, i.e. that internal pressures, such as the need to better manage and extract value from the massive amounts of online information, will require the semantic web to solve specific problems. Hendler observed that the web has demonstrated that people will do more work to share information with others than they will do to help themselves; i.e. people are lazy. When people want to, need to, or are rewarded for sharing information and content then they will work much harder than they would do to manage and organize information purely for their own uses. Hendler noted that there is a tendency to say “we’ll solve the data creation problem at the individual level, as solving it at a group level is harder to manage”, but a look at web history illustrates that the opposite is in fact the case.

Hendler also shared what he thought was the best piece of advice he’d been given by Tim Berners-Lee: start small but viral and you can change many things. Hendler’s slides characterized this as: “My friend sees it, wants one; My competitor sees it, needs one”.

Looking at slides from 2002, Hendler introduced the “Value proposition” supporting the creation of semantic web data & content, i.e. that there has to be some immediate return on the investment in creating metadata.

Hendler finished his retrospective with a slide from a 2008 talk that showed the range of commercial companies, government projects and vertical sectors that were now heavily engaged in the Semantic Web (I was happy to see Talis mentioned in the list!). In Hendler’s opinion there is a growing excitement, that the “next big thing” is going to come from the Semantic Web; not a “Google Killer”, but the next big revolutionary idea or service. The incentives here being the obvious one: money.

Hendler noted that there is a huge amount of data out there and that finding anything in the mess can be a win. So even a little semantics can make a difference here and could provide some competitive advantages. We don’t need perfect answers or solutions, just incremental improvements on what we have now.

I was also happy to see Hendler encourage researchers to “compete in the real world”, noting that they have to work within the context of a real world that is moving very fast, that they can’t really compete with the resources of commercial firms in creating semantic web applications and demonstrators and should instead try and work within that context to demonstrate real value from the technology. Hendler encouraged them to focus on issues of scalability. Does the fundamental technology scale? Do the concepts and ideas scale to a real user base? As an illustration Hendler noted that he was working with a number of companies that were using some simple OWL constructs in order to add semantics to applications, but that none of them were using a formal reasoner just “little pieces of procedural code that scale really well”.

Overall, an interesting workshop!

Paul Miller did a podcast with Jim Hendler back in March if you want to hear more about his thoughts on the Semantic Web.