Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Web 3.0?

With all the buzz surrounding so called ‘Web 2.0' features including net based applications, social networking, tagging, blogs, automated syndication of content and the like, it's often hard to see beyond the hype and determine what the impact of these technologies will be on the web as it matures. While marketing types tout the ‘2.0 Revolution' as something akin to the proletariat seizing dominion over the network— and the light shone down from above, and all was good – there are other forces at work which, while present to a lesser extent in 1.0, have now seriously taken root and may shape the future of the net in ways far beyond that which the initial influx of the masses has engendered.

I suppose the goal of ‘Web 2.0' to those developing and deploying its technologies could be summarized as motivating people to "Sign up and tell us about yourself".  What do you find interesting? What moves you to comment? What products attract you? Who are your friends? What do they like? What about their friends? These questions and many more are easily answered – people willingly offer up the information without a second thought – while the marketers rub their hands together with glee.

So far however, efforts to entice you to disclose data have been largely limited to the individual web entities concerned. If Amazon.com knew you liked Michael Bolton and regularly purchased spray-on hair, that was extent of it – other web properties had no idea.  People on Facebook might believe you were into gansta' rap and not follicularly challenged. This data is kept in their respective silos and jealously guarded.

So what's all this have to do with the future of the web? Well, quite a bit actually. Now that ‘Web 3.0' is gaining some traction as a buzzword in the technical press at least, people are struggling, as they did with its predecessor, to define just what that is. For most, part of the definition stems from the data silo problem illustrated above.

Users have become tired of having to create new profiles and upload new friends lists on every site they wish to join. Data portability is being demanded. To address this issue, various initiatives have come to the fore including Google's Friend Connect. This application allows you to sign up once, automate the process thereafter for every new site you join, and take your friend data with you. The interesting thing about this is that many of the elements which have been combined to create these solutions (Open ID, Open Auth, and FOAF for example) are components of what has been described as the ‘Semantic Web'.

Originally envisioned by Internet luminaries such as Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the web), the Semantic Web's goal is to create a system whereby the net's content is more readily understood by machines. At present, web pages are marked up primarily to ensure they are easily read by the people visiting them. To be sure, there are HTML elements which contain some metadata (descriptive data about the page's content), but these are insufficient to adequately convey exact meaning to anything other than a human viewer. If machines truly were able to comprehend the actual content of an Internet based resource, be it a database, web page, music file, calendar, friends list – whatever – it would open up exciting possibilities beyond anything currently experienced online.

To use existing Facebook functionality to illustrate a simple example, let's say I upload a photo of a group of people to the site. I can enter comments about it and others can do the same.  That's pretty straightforward, though not particularly useful from a machine comprehension perspective. However, if I were to use Facebook's interface to identify who was in the photo and their X and Y coordinates within its context, I'd have just created semantic data which can be used in quite imaginative ways.

I could, for example, easily perform a sort high tech "Where's Waldo". I'd analyze all photos similarly tagged, and referencing the time and date stamp as well as GPS coordinates (already supported by many cameras), automatically create a photographic timeline depicting myself at various stages and locations throughout my life. Unfortunately in the Web 2.0 world, this would only be useful if all photos which depict me were on Facebook. What about all the photos my family and friends have taken? What if they don't use Facebook?

The Semantic Web promises to circumvent these difficulties by removing data barriers and enabling machines talk to each other intelligently about the exact nature of the content they contain. This would power global access to what's known as a Service Oriented Architecture, wherein Internet based resources would advertise the services they have available to software based agents whose task it is to pull relevant data from a variety of sources in order to accomplish the task at hand.

Let's try a more complex example. Suppose I want to organize a big party... how will the semantic web help? I'd start by opening my mobile phone and selecting the PartyPlanner widget. This activates an agent which, combing the web, accesses my global friends list, narrows the results to those residing in my region, compares all their calendars to determine the best weekend to have the party based on availability, and displays the result. Feeling the date presented is too far off, I refine the search to determine the best time this month to have the party. Seeing the results, I discover that the event will be smaller than I'd have liked. I decide to include my friend's friends who live in the area and are available.

"Wow! That's going to be a huge party! I can't have that many people at my house."

I select the ‘find venue' option and, automatically taking the number of participants into account, the agent determines which appropriately sized venues are available whose entertainment for that date satisfies the musical tastes of the majority of invitees. After the agent has returned the list of available venues, I select my preference, enter some descriptive text and hit ‘Send Invitations'. SMS messages go out all invitees who are presented with a pop-up alert asking them if they want to accept and add the event to their calendars. After determining the number of attendees, the agent will tentatively book the venue or suggest a smaller one based on response.

Can you imagine the power of this infrastructure for more complex situations – weddings for example? Better still, the semantic web will empower researchers to gain novel insights by way of intelligent agents scouring the web for data related to their area of enquiry (perhaps generated by researchers working on something completely different) which may not be otherwise obvious.

Unfortunately, despite all this promise, the semantic web – that which many are calling ‘Web 3.0' – faces many challenges if it is ever to realize this potential. Unlike its predecessor, a fundamental shift is required in terms of the way content is created for the medium, as human and machine readable versions must be made available simultaneously. However, with new tools and standards like RDF, OWL and SPARQL coming on-stream all the time, the dream of Mr. Berners-Lee may hopefully soon become reality.

Originally published in HUB: The Computer Paper, July, 2008, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

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