Notes from ISWC 2011

Last week, I attended the 10th International Semantic Web Conference (ISWC) in Bonn, Germany. A tremendous variety of sophisticated work is going on both in academia and industry to improve the technology for, and take advantage of, the ever-growing network of data and concepts published, through open standards, on the web.

You might say it is the best of times and the worst of times for semantic web enthusiasts, in that reasoning and query engines that can be used on large collections of RDF have in the last few years become a reality (one of the Challenge Tracks provided contestants with a *billion* triples to work with).  But some see clouds on the horizon. The web search titans (Bing, Google and Yahoo!) are now pushing, a microformat and vocabulary standard for web content that some worry may threaten the development of richer semantic web technology.  Still, most treated the news positively, happy to know that these organizations now seem to agree on the importance of semantics.  In fact, Yahoo! described at the conference how they are trying to build a “Web of Objects” that takes advantage of, together with more extensive internal vocabularies, to regroup knowledge pieces that are scattered around the Web.

Conference chair Natasha Noy showed a revealing pair of tag clouds comparing the abstracts from the first year of the conference in 2001 to today — the terms “semantic” and “web” have shrunk in importance and “data” is now king! ISWC 2011 tag cloud

Ivan Herman’s blog gives a good sampling of the flavor of talks presented at the meeting.  I especially enjoyed the Industry Track, since these applications are less familiar to me than the academic/scientific ones, and  I was particularly impressed by the importance of semantic technologies to the news media and other content industries.  These technologies are being deployed by news organizations with great enthusiam (e.g. the BBC).  I also came away with a strong sense that semantic technologies are helping to create demand, and drive a revolution in the use of, Open Government Data; there were a number of demonstrations of useful real-world applications, particularly to environmental monitoring.

With my Phenoscape hat on, I attended a Linked Open Data for Science (LISC) satellite workshop prior to the main conference.  The event included both presentations and discussions from a variety of perspectives about the opportunities and challenges of this new technology.  A diversity of fields were represented (social science, linguistics, geosciences, biomedicine, etc.).  But, it is clear that uptake of linked open data as an alternative means of publication is still in its infancy within the sciences.  This despite the fact that the bioinformatics data centers account for nearly a quarter of the real estate in the famous linked data cloud diagram.  Some of the most exciting opportunities, in my opinion, come from the ability to allow radically decentralized data publication, and this is something that we might wish to pilot in a modestly distributed data curation environment like Phenoscape.  Another observation: I was surprised to discover at the meeting how much the utility of the linked data cloud (and, by extension, the semantic web) depend on the social convention by which everyone provides links into a relatively small number of large ‘concept repositories’ like DBPedia (which was originally a Master’s project, BTW).

The breakout discussion sessions at LISC  highlighted how scientific practice will place difficult demands on linked data with respect to provenance, context, granularity, distributed authority, etc.  This resonated with the message of our own contribution to the workshop, which outlined some of the particular challenges in making context-dependent links between scientific objects, when the descriptions of those objects are scattered across different resources, and when the similarities between objects are spread weakly over many properties [1].  Another important question that hit home for a number of us coming from the bioinformatics and biodiversity informatics world is how scientists are going to be able to take advantage of the innovations now going on in the commercial sector (including some of the exhibitors at the main conference) within the constraints and DIY culture of small individual university-based research grants.

There is no denying the explosion in linked data resources out there (comparisons of the growth in the cloud diagram are about as common as graphs showing the growth in sequence data at a biology conference).  But another recurrent theme of the meeting was that unfortunately much of that content is missing semantics (i.e. a lack of use or availability of ontologies for many concepts, and lack of links between content at different endpoints), and generating semantically annotated triples needs to be easier that it currently is (a message certainly relevant to those of us developing curation tools).

One of the keynotes, from Frank van Harmelen, generated quite a bit of buzz.  He looked back on 10 years of the semantic web, asking what theoretical principles we can learn from the experience so far, and his annotated slides are well worth a look.

The conference was a great mix of different formats.  In addition to the keynotes and regular talks, there are a host of workshops and tutorials, challenges, panel discussions (including one billed as a ‘Death Match’), and even a special competition for the best “Outrageous Ideas”.  The winner of that one was a proposal to bring linked data to the non-networked portion of humanity.  A particularly nice feature of the meeting was the ‘Minute Madness’ preceding the poster session in which each of the poster presenters gave a short timed pitch with to all the attendees – it was a very entertaining and informative way to ‘see’ every poster and allowed everyone to quickly pick out which ones to hit during the session.

For more, see the excellent day-by-day summary of the meeting from Juan Sequeda, where there are links to all the winning presentations and challenge entries.  [Ironically, the conference website is down temporarily while it is being moved, so come back later if the links to the papers hang].  The next ISWC will be November 11-15, 2012 in Boston.


[1] Vision T, Blake J, Lapp H, Mabee P, Westerfield M (2011) Similarity Between Semantic Description Sets: Addressing Needs Beyond Data Integration, in Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Linked Science, Bonn, Germany, October 24, 2011, Tomi Kauppinen, Line C. Pouchard, Carsten Kessler (eds), published in CEUR Workshop Proceedings, Volume 783.

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