The day before yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at the Free University of Amsterdam (VU) to about a 100 people of the Dutch Semantic Web commnunity.
In my talk I gave an overview of the current situation in Open Government Data in the Netherlands, as well as in the EU in general. I ended with a few observations on how open government data is of relevance to the Semantic Web community.
The availability of open government data, especially if pooled in a data catalogue, to me seems like the logical place where semantic web can come into its own. This because open government data catalogues provide both the volume and the variety of data where ‘linked data’ not only becomes nice to have, but a need to have. Linked data (i.e. semantic web) will prove, I think, to be a key ingredient in helping large parts of the population understand the potential and value of open data, as well as helping them make sense of all the data that is out there by weaving the connections between datasets.
Another observation I made was worded more as a challenge. When you have large sets of data or information, that are digitally opened up, you have more than just a very large pile of records. The great additional thing you get is the possibility of adding another layer, a higher level, of information altogether. When you have all EU documents translated in all 20-30 languages, you don’t just have a large set of similar documents, you have an invaluable corpus on which to base automatic translation algorithms. Which is what the EU did for Google translate. When you have a large body of stories or narrative fragments, you don’t just have a bunch of qualitative data, you have the ingredients for building a cultural map of the storytellers involved. In anthropology this is common, but it now is becoming possible digitally as well, by using tools like SenseMaker Suite. More, especially digitally more, is different. Very different. Especially when you can start linking all that ‘more’ data together. You open up new dimensions of insight. The SemWeb people know what it takes technologically to do that. So I challenged them to be the Dr. Snow of the 21st century, to be the ones opening our eyes to new insights and connections using open government data.
Dr. Snow, as described recently by my friend Robert Paterson, opened up our eyes to something new in 1854 in London. People were dying of cholera, and nobody knew how you got infected or how it was transmitted. Until Snow started mapping the deaths on a city map of London, not knowing what that would yield. What it yielded however was a major breakthrough: most deaths were concentrated around one particular water well. Turned out the water was contaminated by sewage. Once that link was made the massive effort of building the London sewers got underway.
It was an afternoon well spent in Amsterdam, and I am looking forward to continued discussion with some of the participants.