Semantically speaking – the weeknote

Last week was rather intense. I spent it at the Knowledge Graph Conference (KGConf) at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, New York.

Around 2010 I got first interested in graphs and the semantic stuff. The ideas of Web 3.0 (not the blockchain, the semantic web), HTML 5, and Resource Description Framework (RDF) were compelling. They promised to address what was wrong with the internet and data of the previous decades. So, enthusiastically, I started reading, learning, and experimenting. It lasted a couple of years, but gradually it all started to look like solutions looking for problems, a bunch of fascinating but rather impractical and unnecessary ideas.

That was then. Fast forward a decade, and I joined the Civil Service. Within a few months, the semantic web was back on my mind. When I first looked at it, the ideas and the solutions were simply too big for my professional world of small startups and digital agencies. They were solving problems which were not mine to solve. But now? I am a part of an extra-large, very-federated and rather-anarchic organisation with an ambition to use the information it holds well for the public good. So many data challenges around me appear to be screaming: semantic web, linked data, graph databases, RDF, and knowledge graphs. Look at my Search for a Better Search if you need a detailed example.

I have been talking about this for a year now. I have presented some ideas in several cross-government fora, including Data Connect 22. As a result, I found some interest, a few fellow enthusiasts, and more than a healthy dose of suspicion towards the ideas. And this is surprising! Because a decade earlier, we were the pioneers, the early adopters of this technology. Back then, in the early 2010s, we were publishing public information as linked data. What happened? Unlike me back then, the Civil Service had and still has the problems this technology was designed to solve.

I thought I might not be in the right circles, not connected enough, that this is only my opinion. But now I have discussed these topics with several experts from many countries and organisations during the conference. Those who remember the early 2010s remember the British involvement and are puzzled as I am about how it all fizzled out.

What happened? Is it connected to the Government Digital Services revolution that started about the same time? Or is it just a coincidence? It isn’t because the problems have disappeared or the solutions are not worth pursuing. Last week I saw how various private and public organisations apply these technologies to get more out of their data and to collaborate better across organisational boundaries. I’m sure it would help us solve our problems, and achieve our ambitions too!

So let’s do it. Let’s at least start the discussion at least. Unlike ten years ago, we have Digital Data and Technology (DDaT) functions across the government. We have new data professions, like my own – data architecture. So far, as a profession, we have been focusing on relational data modelling and futile attempts at data centralisation. Let’s at least explore the possibility of a decentralised (federated, not blockchained), semantic data architecture for the government and the public good. It is more complex than what we are used to. But I’m sure it will be worth it. I know we can do it.

If you agree or disagree, let’s talk. If you are or were involved in things like that in the Civil Service, please reach out. A discussion is needed. Contact me here, on twitter, linked in, where ever.

Back to the weeknote. The Knowledge Graph Conference I attended was much better than I expected, and not only because of the content – which was good. It was a much-needed opportunity to reflect on my ideas about open, linked data in the public domain. I met experts, practitioners, and enthusiasts of the technology from around the world. I have learnt about successes but also challenges ahead. I will likely use these contacts to help us all progress the applications of structured graph knowledge in the public domain.

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