Elevator Pitch for the Semantic Web

February 2, 2011

SemanticWeb.com invited people to make video elevator pitches for the Semantic Web, focused on the question “What is the Semantic Web?”. I decided to give it a go.

I’d love to hear comments from folks who share my motivation, trying to solve this ‘every app is a walled garden’ problem.

In case you’re curious, here’s the script I’d written down, which turned out to be wayyyy to long for the elevators in my building, and also too long for me to remember.

Eric Franzon of SemanticWeb.Com invited people to send in an elevator pitch for the Semantic Web. Here’s mine, aimed at a non-technical audience. I’m Sandro Hawke, and I work for W3C at MIT, but this is entirely my own view.

The problem I’m trying to solve comes from the fact that if you want to do something online with other people, your software has to be compatible with theirs. In practice this usually means you all have to use the same software, and that’s a problem. If you want to share photos with a group, and you use facebook, they all have to use facebook. If you use flickr, they all have to use flickr.

It’s like this for nearly every kind of software out there.

The exceptions show what’s possible if we solve this problem. In a few cases, through years of hard work, people have been able to create standards which allow compatible software to be built. We see this with email and we see this with the web. Because of this, email and the Web are everywhere. They permeate our lives and now it’s hard to imagine modern life without them.

In other areas, though, we’re stuck, because we don’t have these standards, and we’re not likely to get them any time soon. So if you want to create, explore, play a game, or generally collaborate with a group of people on line, every person in the group has to use the same software you do. That’s a pain, and it seriously limits how much we can use these systems.

I see the answer in the Semantic Web. I believe the Semantic Web will provide the infrastructure to solve this problem. It’s not ready yet, but when it is, programs will be able to use the Semantic Web to automatically merge data with other programs, making them all — automatically — compatible.

If I were up to doing another take, I’d change the line about the Semantic Web not being much yet. And maybe add a little more detail about how I see it working. I suppose I’d go for this script:

Okay, elevator pitch for the Semantic Web.

What is the Semantic Web?

Well, right now, it’s a set of technologies that are seeing some adoption and can be useful in their own right, but what I want it to become is the way everyone shares their data, the way all software works together.

This is important because every program we use locks us into its own little silo, its own walled garden

For example, imagine I want to share photos with you. If I use facebook, you have to use facebook. If I use flickr, you have to use flicker. And if I want to share with a group, they all have to use the same system

That’s a problem, and I think it’s one the Semantic Web can solve with a mixture of standards, downloadable data mappings, and existing Web technologies.

I’m Sandro Hawke, and I work for W3C at MIT. This has been entirely my own opinion.

(If only I could change the video as easily as that text. Alas, that’s part of the magic of movies.)

So, back to the subject at hand. Who is with me on this?

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11 Responses to “Elevator Pitch for the Semantic Web”


  1. I don’t know. That elevator pitch doesn’t seem to convey the true depth of the Semantic Web.

    I work on Nepomuk, a Semantic Desktop project, and if I have to tell people what I’m working on – One example that I would always use would be queries. Cause that really is a big thing.

    With the Semantic Web, I could theoretically ask for “All the people who have worked on open source software, given a talk at a Linux Conf, have published at least 5 blog posts on RDF, and have worked for some government”. Doing something like this manually would require A LOT of time. And for large queries it wouldn’t even be practical.

    No more will we be limited to “keyword” based searches. The web wouldn’t just be a mindless collection of interconnected documents, but something machines can make sense of.

    Sure, this all is only possible cause you get the raw data in a standard format (RDF) and that’s exactly what you were conveying with the whole Social Network interoperability and photos sharing thought. But that doesn’t really scream out “WOW! This is something that would really benefit me!”

  2. sandhawke Says:

    I think that’s depth in a different direction.

    What’s your experience about people reacting to your example? They probably understand it, but after thinking about it for a few minutes, do they come back and say Dammit, Yes, that’s something I really need to do, what can I do to help?

    It’s pretty rare that I find myself wanting to do that kind of query, and I’ve been writing queries since the bronze age. It will certainly be useful, but I’m skeptical that it is useful enough to enough people to drive wide-scale adoption. It also depends a bit on UIs; maybe using something like parallax for a while would get people realizing they DO need to do queries like this.

    So, I’m all in favor of the argument you make, too, but if I had to pick one reason, I’d go with: it’ll let you connect to everyone, not just the people who chose the same provider/app/platform as you.

  3. Dan Brickley Says:

    Love that you used a real elevator :)

  4. Vijay Raj Says:

    My pitch would go like this.. to a layman on the street.

    “There is a technology out there which can understand you! With that understanding, it can modify the internet the way you want, auto-magically!”

    That’s it! No body cares if the data is in silos, as long as the silo contains the entire world, which Facebook does. What they do want though is a good filter, so they can get the information they want and go back to watching football or dancing babies on YouTube.

    When I asked my wife if she ever remotely thinks of “encrypting” email, so Google/Facebook can’t read it, she laughed her butt off! And she is a computer science engineer.

  5. sandhawke Says:

    Vijay, I think I get your point, but I don’t actually know how to do what your pitch promises. Or, I have some idea, but that’s natural language stuff, which isn’t what I’m pitching at all.

  6. Vijay Raj Says:

    Hi Sandro,

    I am not pitching NLP at all. Although any Semantic Web effort would involve some/lot of it. What I am personally trying to do is build context for every person/place/thing. Any incoming information is filtered through this context.

    For individual contexts to exist, we need to have global contexts, for places/things. My goal is to build that global context. The same tools will be used to build individual contexts, with no user intervention.

    Most websites build contexts, just that they don’t share it, and users don’t have control over how it is used. Those contexts don’t talk to each other, which is on purpose, ergo the silos.

    Regards,
    Vijay.

  7. John Zarlino Says:

    Great video! I was on line before Al Gore invented it. (smile) Let me know what I can do to help. It’s important to me that all of us learn how to earn while we communicate better, manage better, and serve better every day. John Zarlino Internet Visionary Video Phone Number 347-ZARLINO (927-5466) (brending is a new word invented on March 9th, 2011)

  8. John Zarlino Says:

    Semantic progress example. The RDF needs to include path content to each URL for the AI to learn and store for recall.

    http://www.myglobalhub.com/playback.php?pl=ODU0MzFmZWM3N2E5ODYwMjI2ZWM2OThiZWUxMzU5ZjNmMjE4NTAzYS5mbHY0NDc2MzE=&crmid=1&DesignID=40482&TemplateLinks=9682

  9. Joojoobees Says:

    I think it is a testament to the power of “the Semantic Web” that many very different pitches can be made. The value that you describe is considerable, and I think you make a good argument. Other ideas were expressed above, and I am interested in some of the other possible applications (heading more in the direction of AI, with less concern about universality of access). To me, it is the diversity of value propositions itself that indicates the potential behind “the Semantic Web”, and I hope it continues to be fertile ground for many unrelated technological improvements, rather than ever being reduced to a single, easily understandable value.

  10. cypher4 Says:

    Nice, response on the elevator picth :P

  11. cypher4 Says:

    Nice, response on the elevator pitch :P


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