Saturday, May 10, 2014

Let's link!

Tom Johnson responded to a statement of mine in which I said that we need non-programmer tools for linked data work. He asked for case studies, and so I'm going to do some "off the top of my head" riffing here, just to see what might come of it.

First, let me say a little something about some analogous technology. Let's take HTML. I'm one of those folks who learned HTML many decades ago when all you needed was <p>, <i>, <b> and maybe <hr>. With these, you could create a web page. Web pages in those days didn't have banners, sidebars, tables ... adding an image was going all fancy. There were no WYSIWYG tools because it was very simple to create such a web page. Then we got more sophisticated formatting (server-side includes, side bars, tables(!)), and now there is a whole programming language called CSS to handle page creation (and destruction, since CSS is very complex.) It doesn't take much looking around to understand that most people today need TOOLS to create a web page and lots of tools exist, tools that cost little or nothing (WordPress, Drupal) and can be used by folks who've never written 50 lines of working code.

Essentially, on the web today, a few people are providing the structure and the tools, but most folks are providing content without knowing the guts of the technology. Content is, in my mind, the actual goal of the web; technology is the means.

I've spent a lot of time talking to folks about linked data, but linked data is not itself a goal. I've started trying to move the conversation from the underlying technology to what I see as the real goal: making connections -- connections between concepts, ideas, statements about things. This is inherently more social than technical, but of course it needs the technology behind it in order to work. The easier it is for people to make connections, the more connections they will make.

The problem that I'm seeing today in the linked data space is that we don't have an idea of what kinds of connections people will want to make, or what they will do with them. I don't think we're going to know until we apply some scientific method to the problem -- that is, try, fail, try again, rinse, repeat.

I created a really funky web page with one idea. The page looks like this:

It talks about having the ability to profile types of data that can then be selected in the content of the page. Each of these will then pull additional content (maps, term definitions, biographical information)  from available linkable data into the page. This could begin as a very simple application with only a small number of options, as a proof of concept. (WordPress?) I'm sure that others can greatly improve on it.  Take a look at the display in the FAO AGRIS catalog to get an idea of how this might look with a better display.

Have at it, please.