In 2005, TechWatch published a report on Semantic Web Technologies written by Brian Matthews who, at that time, was deputy manager of W3C’s UK office. As JISC has recently announced an open call of funding for a study on Semantic Web technologies in teaching and learning we thought we’d use this opportunity to provide a bit of an update on Semantic Web developments.
The JISC call seeks to fund a study which looks at pragmatic aspects of the actual use of semantic applications in real world scenarios. The successful applicant will review a number of case studies of real-world teaching and learning scenarios and look at the potential for use of semantic technologies. The key question they are asking is: “Can you convince us that semantic technologies offer one potential solution to some real problems?”
This is an interesting development. In 2005, the Semantic Web was still seen by many people as very much a computer science ‘Grand’ research project which would take years to reach fruition. Despite some very well worked out visions as to what it would deliver – a more automated Web in which some sense of ‘meaning’ or semantics had been imbued into data held within pages and their links – there were still plenty of practical doubts. Even in 2006, when Tim Berners-Lee and other researchers at Southampton provided an update (The Semantic Web Revisited) they admitted that: “this simple idea, however, remains largely unrealized” (page 96). However, they were optimistic, arguing that the key development was for standards that express meaning to become well established and they reported that this was “progressing steadily”.
Despite this there are still concerns expressed, particularly by the business community, as to the practical reality of doing semantic web. Recent conferences such as Semantic Technologies have highlighted the question again: where are the practical examples? The Tallis Semantic Web Gang have produced a useful podcast of a round-up discussion which reviews their attendance at these conferences in which they debate some of these issues. As they make clear one of the key things to come out of these conferences is that venture capitalists and business development people are starting to ask quizzical questions about what exactly semantic web is, what does it actually do for real users and what is the ‘killer app’?
This reflects the original TechWatch report, which commented that: “people are still asking how they can be used in practical situations to solve real problems” (page 2). However, the report also concluded that higher education was likely to be at the forefront in the use of these technologies. Given that, the JISC open call seems particularly timely. There is an opportunity here for higher education to lead the way in making use of semantics with real users and I think it will be interesting to see the outcomes.