Exploring Linked Data: Flowers

A former colleague and friend, Bonnie Jarvie, got me hooked on the short-and-sweet daily blog post from Toxel highlights new and interesting designs for everyday and luxury things. Some are silly, some are creepy, but most all are thought-provoking. Bringing me this morning to think, "Why don't I explore the semantic web the same way? One concept at a time." And so today I will begin.

As this is my first attempt, I was casting about for inspiration - with billions of triples available, where should I start? The default search at Creative Commons came to mind: flowers. Wanting to avoid analysis paralysis, I went with it, bringing up Sindice as my starting place.

"Flowers" returns 16.8 thousand results from Sindice's index. I have to admit I was a bit surprised! RDF, RDFa, microformats ~ HCard, licenses all were returned. Vegetation, people, places, events, albums, films, books - all kinds of things use this concept of a flower.

For one person (at least!) it is his surname: Ron Flowers, an English pro footballer in the 1960's. Tad Williams, the famous sci-fi/fantasy writer, titled one of his novels The War of the Flowers, which I easily find I can check out from the Free Library of Philadelphia. Now, it would have been interesting to link that to the recent piece of legislation that kept the library from closing, but that's a tangent I don't need to follow today!

I did find some of my pre-conceived expectations - pictures of flowers. I learned that Blue Roses do not exist in nature, and are the result of genetic modification.

In 1989 Brazilian filmaker Jorge Furtado released a short documentary on the lifestream of a tomato, from garden to dump, in a piece entitled Isle of Flowers. Frankly, this is not what first came to mind when I entered the search term - how about you? A tomato begins with a flower, but is not itself a flower; Brazil is neither an island nor a flower; a film is not a flower but could visualize and describe one. The "Isle of Flowers" is a name for a landfill in Porto Alegre, and the film is a commentary on materialism and priorities. It's actually quite a well-known and highly respected film, having won many awards.

Sometimes it's good to think about the bigger picture - I went looking for a rose, found roses and thorns, and now feel inspired to do good work. Not a bad way to start. There is much work to be done on the problems of focus and precision in linked data - when all this wondrous variety of data is linked, how do we drill down to what we're really looking for? How do we not get distracted by really fascinating stuff? We have marvelous tools being developed to address these concerns. But are they useful for the average person? I think I have some thoughts on user-requirements to go and jot down.

So, what will you discover today? Happy exploring!

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Semantic Technologies for Social Media and Product Management

Thursday evening I participated in a panel for the Boston Product Management Association. John Cass moderated a conversation among the audience and me, Sean Martin of Cambridge Semantics and Mike Spataro of Visible Technologies. We had excellent coverage of both academic and practical aspects of semantic technologies of all kinds.

By all kinds, I mean to say that one of the biggest memes of the evening was the differences between and complementary uses of what was termed "little s" and "Big S" semantics. Now, I'm not entirely sure I like this distinction, it reminds me of other unnecessary debates such as "Big IA" and "little IA" for information architects, and has some negative connotations. "Little s" was coined to contain natural language processing and text analytics - machine based semantics. "Big S" was coined to contain the open standards promoted by the W3C and others: RDF, OWL, SPARQL and the broader family of modeling and markup capabilities defined by cross-industry working groups.

John's post is an excellent overview of the insights provided by each panelist.

Mike gave the group a great overview of semantic analysis for social media - using text analysis, algorithms, sentiment analysis and other NLP techniques for customer monitoring. We had great questions from the audience around competitive intelligence too, and if these techniques could support gathering of intelligence.

Sean provided one of the clearest explanations of semantic technologies from the open standards perspective that I have heard in some time. He gave a history and overviews of the key standards developed by the W3 which are important for the audience to be aware of: RDF, OWL and SPARQL. Critically, he didn't overwhelm the audience with information on every working group and variant on these standards. One key point I hope the audience took away is the idea that on the semantic web, a machine can be the consuming agent, whereas on the current web, a human has to be the consumer.

I shared my long-held belief that you have to have human-machine hybrid system: using the best of NLP and standards based models. For example, using entity extraction tools for finding people or companies, and then using data modeled in an ontology to display the information stored as triples relating to the entity extracted.

As for myself, I was much more interested in the questions coming from the audience - useful insight for individuals and organizations contemplating entering or expanding in this space. We discussed customer relationship management, competitive intelligence, sentiment analysis; how to match an extracted entity to an ontology; how semantic technologies can improve web analytics; how semantic technologies can tip decision makers from being data aggregators who need to make decisions to empowered executives who simply need to choose an action from a small set of options.

The big question of the night was "how do we get started?" "We're understaffed, underfunded and have little time. How can we begin applying these tools to gain competitive advantage?" The panel recommended simple techniques such as adding RDFa to web pages, creating a small corporate profile to publish as linked data, and one step at-a-time adding semantic capabilities to existing systems, or purchasing new systems that support semantic technologies.

I promised several people some resources; I will gather and post articles and journals in another entry, but I would like to point out some excellent resources for finding tools: Sweet Tools (Sem Web) from Mike Bergman. Honestly, the site is overflowing with great data - research, a glossary, a timeline - and is worth spending time at. I know you'll find it useful.

Thanks to John for putting together a great session - it's gratifying to see interest growing. Thanks also to BPMA for their interest, and to Oracle for hosting the event. I hope many of us continue the conversation.

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Mining the web for customer insights using semantic technologies

John Cass, author of Strategies and Tools for Corporate blogging and the PR Communications blog will be moderating a panel for the Boston Product Manager's association on September 17th. John has an interest in social media and decided to put this panel discussion together because he believes product managers have much to gain from social media and semantic technologies.

From the event listing: The phrase Semantic technologies covers a wide scope of types of technologies from natural language processing, to text analysis, to software standards and methodologies that help describe the web. In this panel and audience participation discussion we learn the basics of semantic technologies, from small "s" to large "s", and explore how semantic technologies are actually being used by product managers for their jobs.

Our focus is on implementation today and in the future. We will give an overview of semantic technologies, and ask the panelists and audience to give their perspectives and experiences on how semantic technologies are being used for product management.

I will be a member of the panel, along with Mike Spataro, SVP, Client Strategy & Channel Partners, Visible Technologies and Sean Martin, President & CTO, Cambridge Semantics Inc. Please introduce yourself if you're able to join us, and if not - I'll be posting my thoughts on the panel tomorrow.

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