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December 21, 2009

Scanning horizons for the Semantic Web in higher education

The week before last I attended a couple of meetings looking at different aspects of the use of Semantic Web technologies in the education sector.

On the Wednesday, I was invited to a workshop of the JISC-funded ResearchRevealed project at ILRT in Bristol. From the project weblog:

ResearchRevealed [...] has the core aim of demonstrating a fine-grained, access controlled, view layer application for research, built over a content integration repository layer. This will be tested at the University of Bristol and we aim to disseminate open source software and findings of generic applicability to other institutions.

ResearchRevealed will enhance ways in which a range of user stakeholder groups can gain up-to-date, accurate integrated views of research information and thus use existing institutional, UK and potentially global research information to better effect.

I'm not formally part of the project, but Nikki Rogers of ILRT mentioned it to me at the recent VoCamp Bristol meeting, and I expressed a general interest in what they were doing; they were also looking for some concrete input on the use of Dublin Core vocabularies in some of their candidate approaches.

This was the third in a series of small workshops, attended by representatives of the project from Bristol, Oxford and Southampton, and the aim was to make progress on defining a "core Research ontology". The morning session circled mainly around usage scenarios (support for the REF (and other "impact" assessment exercises), building and sustaining cross-institutional collaboration etc), and the (somewhat blurred) boundaries between cross-institutional requirements and institution-specific ones; what data might be aggregated, what might be best "linked to"; and the costs/benefits of rich query interfaces (e.g. SPARQL endpoints) v simpler literal- or URI-based lookups. In the afternoon, Nick Gibbins from the University of Southampton walked through a draft mapping of the CERIF standard to RDF developed by the dotAC project. This focused attention somewhat and led to some - to me - interesting technical discussions about variant ways of expressing information with differing degrees of precision/flexibility. I had to leave before the end of the meeting, but I hope to be able to continue to follow the project's progress, and contribute where I can.

A long train journey later, the following day I was at a meeting in Glasgow organised by the CETIS Semantic Technologies Working Group to discuss the report produced by the recent JISC-funded Semtech project, and to try to identify potential areas for further work in that area by CETIS and/or JISC. Sheila MacNeill from CETIS liveblogged proceedings here. Thanassis Tiropanis from the University of Southampton presented the project report, with a focus on its "roadmap for semantic technology adoption". The report argues that, in the past, the adoption of semantic technologies may have been hindered by a tendency towards a "top-down" approach requiring the widespread agreement on ontologies; in contrast the "linked data" approach encourages more of a "bottom-up" style in which data is first made available as RDF, and then later application-specific or community-wide ontologies are developed to enable more complex reasoning across the base data (which may involve mapping that initial data to those ontologies as they emerge). While I think there's a slight risk of overstating the distinction - in my experience many "linked data" initiatives do seem to demonstrate a good deal of thinking about the choice of RDF vocabularies and compatibility with other datasets - and I guess I see rather more of a continuum, it's probably a useful basis for planning. The report recommends a graduated approach which focusses initially on the development of this "linked data field" - in particular where there are some "low-hanging fruit" cases of data already made available in human-readable form which could relatively easily be made available in RDF, especially using RDFa.

One of the issues I was slightly uneasy with in the Glasgow meeting was that occasionally there were mentions of delivering "interoperability" (or "data interoperability") without really saying what was meant by that - and I say this as someone who used to have the I-word in my job title ;-) I feel we probably need to be clearer, and more precise, about what different "semantic technologies" (for want of a better expression) enable. What does the use of RDF provide that, say, XML typically doesn't? What does, e.g., RDF Schema add to that picture? What about convergence on shared vocabularies? And so on. Of course, the learners, teachers, researchers and administrators using the systems don't need to grapple with this, but it seems to me such aspects do need to be conveyed to the designers and developers, and perhaps more importantly - as Andy highlighted in his report of related discussions at the CETIS conference - to those who plan and prioritise and fund such development activity. (As an aside, I this is also something of an omission in the current version of the DCMI document on "Interoperability Levels": it tells me what characterises each level, and how I can test for whether an application meets the requirements of the level, but it doesn't really tell me what functionality each level provides/enables, or why I should consider level n+1 rather than level n.)

Rather by chance, I came across a recent presentation by Richard Cyganiak to the Vienna Linked Data Camp, which I think addresses some similar questions, albeit from a slightly different starting point: Richard asks the questions, "So, if we have linked data sources, what's stopping the development of great apps? What else do we need?", and highlights various dimensions of "heterogeneity" which may exist across linked data sources (use of identifiers, differences in modelling, differences in RDF vocabularies used, differences in data quality, differences in licensing, and so on).

Finally, I noticed that last Friday, Paul Miller (who was also at the CETIS meeting) announced the availability of a draft of a "Horizon Scan" report on "Linked Data" which he has been working on for JISC, as part of the background for a JISC call for projects in this area some time early in 2010. It's a relatively short document (hurrah for short reports!) but I've only had time for a quick skim through. It aims for some practical recommendations, ranging from general guidance on URI creation and the use of RDFa to more specific actions on particular resources/datasets. And here I must reiterate what Paul says in his post - it's a draft on which he is seeking comments, not the final report, and none of those recommendations have yet been endorsed by JISC. (If you have comments on the document, I suggest that you submit them to Paul (contact details here or comment on his post) rather than commenting on this post.)

In short, it's encouraging to see the active interest in this area growing within the HE sector. On reading Paul's draft document, I was struck by the difference between the atmosphere now (both at the Semtech meeting, and more widely) and what Paul describes as the "muted" conclusions of Brian Matthews' 2005 survey report on Semantic Web Technologies for JISC Techwatch. Of course, many of the challenges that Andy mentioned in his report of the CETIS conference session remain to be addressed, but I do sense that there is a momentum here - an excitement, even - which I'm not sure existed even eighteen months ago. It remains to be seen whether and how that enthusiasm translates into applications of benefit to the educational community, but I look forward to seeing how the upcoming JISC call, and the projects it funds, contribute to these developments.

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