Galway Arrival and the Semantic Web

Sunny day in Galway, Praise the Lord! Great skies for a great start to the next six months. Yesterday, not so much…

Hours after arrival, amid dreary skies and misty air, I had my first embarrassing American moment in the corner grocery store. The size of a gas station market, this store looked quite unpromising for a young vegetarian: No fresh veggies? Check. No Tofu? Check. No chickpeas/hummus? Check. A loaf of wheat bread and assorted dairy items later, I found myself at the cash register. Intent not to make any silly money mistakes, I focused myself more on the cash in my wallet than on the amount I was told I owed. “79 something euros,” half of my brain heard. That part of my brain realized I was in a grocery store and didn’t think much of the price. The fact that I had less than 10 items in front of me must have been in the other side of the brain. As I handed over €80, the guy held back a laugh. He slowly handed me back three of my bills. I soon realized it was seventeen ninety something. Yikes. At least it made me feel safe, knowing that people in these parts are nice enough not to let you give away your money.

Today, as I said, went much better. Sunny and in the seventies, I met my supervisor and my research team; found my desk with two monitors and took advantage of the free coffee (espresso) machine. Coolest of all, I met up with Michael Hausenblas – a fellow DERI researcher who found me on Twitter when I was at MIT and didn’t even realize I was an intern until this week. He’s über nice and knowledgeable about Linked Data people and projects and pointed me toward Katharina Siorpaes‘ work with OntoGame, one of the “Games with a Purpose” inspired by Luis Von Ahn. I’ve been very interested in this space for awhile, as it seems like we could take the millions of motivated geeks who check-in at FourSquare, help others through reviews on Yelp, or simply post their personal tastes for the world to see on Glue, and use them to make the Internet a smarter place for computers. What do I mean by this? Let’s start with a fact:

The Internet is pretty dumb.

A lot of work goes into making smart applications to deal with this fact. Google has done a great job of making sense of the gobs of text laid out in the millions of pages around the web, but it still doesn’t actually understand what any of this text means. Try asking it “Can a tiger live in the woods?

Can a tiger live in the woods?

Surprise surprise. Instead of working out the semantics of the sentence, it simply searched for the keywords. Of course, Google can’t do much better with today’s world wide web. The documents it is searching through simply don’t tell it what they are talking about. Google has no definitive way of knowing that this Discovery Channel page is solely about the animal, and this PGA Tour page is solely about the golfer. While the web designers behind these sites have the opportunity to “markup” their pages accordingly, most don’t, simply because there’s no obvious incentive to do so. Humans can figure out what the pages are about, isn’t that enough?

This got me thinking one day: If the web designers don’t have the incentive to mark-up their pages, maybe web surfers might. After all, it is we, web surfers, who deal with the day-to-day frustrations of dumb results. What if when I searched for “Asparagus Omelette St. Louis, MO“, and spent 10 minutes of clicking to find a good place, I could help the next person who had a similar query? What if my quick help could make this other person’s life easier even if they were searching for Belgian Waffles…

The good news? You don’t need to be a web designer or the owner of a breakfast joint to help make this happen. You just need to download a browser add-on. Well, a still-in-Micah’s-head browser add-on, which we’ll call SmartData-SmartWeb (SDSW). As the great people over at Adaptive Blue showed us with Glue, give individuals the tools to change everyone’s browsing experience, and they will do it. Let’s say when I was looking through the menu of Nadoz Café, I could actually tell the computer that it was looking at a menu, and that this menu contains omelettes, and asparagus can be put on them. SDSW makes that possible.

Google Doesn't Know This is a Menu

Google doesn’t know this is a menu

Not only can I use SDSW to tell my computer that I am, in fact, looking at a menu, etc, but everyone else with SDSW can know this, too, no matter what browser they are using. Finally, web designers could choose to copy and paste code from to mark up their site for Google and the world to see. In the mean time, users would be able to search through or even have Google results dynamically highlighted if the SDSW add-on had data on the sites.

The grand vision, is that every noun on the Internet would be properly categorized. Search engines would finally be able to couple the semantics of the question (something WolframAlpha excels at) with the power of the web (clearly Google’s strength).

If you thought this was going to be a travel blog, you’re probably a bit confused right now. Sorry. I think talking about the same kind of thing for too long gets boring. The rest of these posts will probably be a mix of culture and tech. Hope you join me :)

DERI Building

DERI Building



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