A Call for Data Visualization

This is my second post about the themes/problems with the Semantic Web, inspired by the three-day International Semantic Web Conference, which I’m attending. My first post was about Ontology Alignment. This post is about the critical need for ways to visualize the Semantic Web. I have no idea what my next post will be about.

Until people have some visual way of understanding the Semantic Web, it’s going to have an extremely difficult time breaking out of its self-selected, academic bubble.

That’s a problem, because even though technologists here understand it and have some great ideas about applying it to various industries, it won’t be until random people with unrelated, unforeseen problems really get the Semantic Web that there’s even a chance of that coveted aha! moment where it suddenly rises to prominence. (Note: whether or not that moment is going to happen – or should – is a matter of dispute). I don’t mean that people need to be able to squeeze their eyes shut and imagine some tangled, shifting blob-thing that is the Semantic Web, though that would be nice – I’ve tried asking around for good metaphors for the Semantic Web (it’s just a giant database – well, more like a multi-dimensional database, if you can imagine that – or like that big computer they use in Minority Report – a ‘web of data’ sure – but what does data look like?). It isn’t easy. But what we can see is semantic data, and if it can be presented in a clear, flexible, and – importantly – intuitive way (no SPARQL querying required for interaction!) then I think people would start to get what it’s all about.

I’ve seen lots of applications of Semantic Web data, but what I keep looking for are visualizations. The difference being that applications show you data regarding some particular problem or in some particular context, whereas a good visualization would provide a much broader look at a bunch of different kinds of data that can be easily manipulated and viewed in as many creative, useful ways as possible. Stuff like Allegrograph and Simile are much closer to what I’m imagining, but still not as broad and flexible as I’d like. I want something that I can point a friend to and say, “You’re looking at the Semantic Web! This is the data of the web, and these are the ways we have of linking it up so far. If it looks like a mess to you, try playing around until you’re looking at something important to you in a way that makes sense to you.”

Why aren’t applications good enough for this? Because:

1) they don’t look that different from regular mashups, so it’s hard for users to grasp the significance of the technology. From then on, they’ll think of the Semantic Web as something that solved some minor data integration problem, and won’t be able to imagine it in different contexts or solving different sorts of problems.

2) the people here aren’t going to come up with every potential application of Semantic Web data and – quite possibly – they won’t come up with the best applications. Someone else – less tech-savvy but more plugged into marketing or social networking or whatever – might be able to leverage the technology in a much better way, if only they understood its full power.

I’ve heard rumors (won’t say where) that a panel/workshop focusing on data visualization was turned down by the ISWC (apparently, this topic was also brought up at the Town Hall meeting, which I didn’t attend). At any rate, “interface” was among the terms most frequently associated with papers that were turned down, as they told us during Tuesday’s opening ceremony. I accept that, as a primarily academic conference, ISWC is catering more toward Semantic technologists/scholars than industry-oriented people. But I feel strongly enough about the need for better visualization of the Semantic Web to argue that this is a mistake. It reflects the internally-oriented nature of the Semantic Web academic community, which could benefit greatly from outside perspectives (Tom Mitchell – who’s not a traditional Semantic Web guy – gave such an intruiging keynote this morning in part because he’s able to bring foreign ideas and solutions to the community). The Semantic Web movement is past ready to open itself up to the rest of the world and making the Semantic Web into something everyone can see and understand is the first step.