Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Semantic Web in the Startup School

Startup School was excellent! I met Paul Graham and Peter Norvig personally, the two people I was mostly looking forward to meet and ask them questions. What kind of questions? Well, you guessed it. About the Semantic Web.

Paul Graham said: "Semantic Web is a red flag". I was shocked! "Explain what you are doing. Don't say it is the Semantic Web. Once your application is ready, then say its part of the Semantic Web", said Graham. And he is totally right. People have gone on saying what is the Semantic Web, and haven't been able to explain it very well. The best way to explain anything is with an example, so we are still waiting for the killer app. Kingsley Idehen, from OpenLink Software, had a very good response. The lesson: start building Semantic Web apps fast. Start now! I already started!

The climax of the day was Peter Norvig. I summarize his talk in the following: use existing data to do better. He talked about improving image search with existing data on the web and continued by explaining a text segmentation problem. One example, where existing data could be useful, is to create a set of words, given a couple of words as input. For example, given lion, tiger, bear, you could search the web and get related words like elephant, monkey (other animals), but the words wood, musical, toddler would appear. Why? In my words, its the syntactic problem of the Web. If you have a text about animals in a musical wood box for toddlers, well obviously these words may have some "syntactic" relationship with animals. We can assume that there is a relationship, but actually, semantically, there is no relationship.

Please check his slides and videos, to view his talk. But the best thing, is that I was able to make a question. To hear my question and his answer, look for 20:55 or -5:01. He said, "there are already a lot of semantics in the web", and then points to the examples of his talk. I completely disagree! That is an example of the syntactic web, and not the semantic web. You can extract semantics out of the syntax, but that doesn't mean that it is accurate. Peter Norvig is known for being against the Semantic Web, well, that is what most people consider. This post here and here will explain.

But to my surprise, he actually did give Semantic Web the credit it deserves. He considered "great that communities can get together and agree ..like in biogenomics area. That is a good model. Its a community that has a need." He considers that academic and friendly instead of competitive and "those kinds of attributes, I think that will coalesce together and grow. But for the world as a whole, you wont necessary see that." Aha! So it will work for the bio-community (as it is now) but for the WWW, it won't?

He was about to finish answering my question, but I was able to ask him about the Linked Data. He answered saying that "we need more flexible ways to link data." And I agree with him completely! But that is what the research community is working on. Personally, I work on integrating the data in relational databases (that are the biggest source of data on the WWW) with the Semantic Web automatically. Norvig continued saying that the "Semantic Web is a treaty between parties to say we are going to agree on this particular ontology. The more treaties, the better. You shouldnt expect everbody to lay down their arms on this." In my opinion the linked data image is a demonstration that more and more people are getting together.

So is Google interested in the Semantic Web? "We are interested", said Norvig. He continued, "we do want to support it and see where it goes, so far, we don't see it making an impact."

After his presentation, I was able to talk to him personally. I told him that before he seemed that he was against it, but now, he is even kind of for it. He said. "eehhh". I will take that as a "we are secretly doing work on the Semantic Web, but not publicizing anything until we have good results."

The cool thing was that everybody in the auditorium now new that I was a Semantic Web guy, so immediately I was able to meet the people I was looking forward to meet: people interested in Semantic Web. Unfortunately it was a small number, but at least it wasn't zero. I was glad to finally meet somebody from TopQuadrant, which was Keefe. I also met Waleed Abdulla from Zooov, which was one of the persons who initially started to work on SPARQL four years ago. And it was great to meet people interested in the Semantic Web like Daniel from Biographicon and Sebastian from Intalio, and how it can help their ideas and business.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Austin Tech Happy Hour: a review

I just got back from the Austin Tech Happy Hour. I've been wanting to go to this for a while and I'm glad I made it this time. I also convinced JohnDeo to go at the last moment. I went with my UT friends Adam Nirav and Ronak. When I got there, I met Kristine (or @gloriakt in twitter). She is one the the techy girls in Austin. Its great to have boys and GIRLS interested in technology!

The first people I bumped into was the qcue team. They are longhorns!!! If you haven't heard about them, they are a very promising startup that helps promote price live events and concerts and resell tickets, and give death to scalpers! They were the winners of the 2008 UT Moot Corp Competition. One of them is a PhD in CS and the other one is a PhD in Economics. As JohnDeo said, CS and Economics together... they are going to take over the world.

Later JohnDeo and I sat down and started to talk about our favorite thing: the Semantic Web! I was mentioning him the new venture I am working with: turn2live.com. This site will provide Austinites a search of live music experience using latest Semantic Web technologies. And again... this deserves another post.

During our conversation, we started to talk to Anne Pritchard, who is a communications expert and helps companies be more productive. With our Semantic Web vibe, we decided to explain her what the Semantic Web. To be honest, we weren't that successful, but Anne very kindly gave us some tips. She told us that we should be able to pitch the idea in 45 seconds with maximum 2 examples. And again... my next post will be about how can you explain the Semantic Web in 45 seconds. Anyways, we tried doing this all night and I have to say that I did get better at it (with a couple of beers). I then got the opportunity to take with Brad Davis, a Global IT Professional. In 45 seconds, I got him intriguied about the Semantic Web and how it can help the data integration problem. I am sure he is googling about Semantic Web right now as you read!

As always, I had a great time with Casey Grooms, JohnDeo, John Erik and with Cesar T (who I finally met!). JohnDeo came up with a clustering theorem for networking that was even proved. If a group of people are talking in a closed circle, nobody will come up to you to be part of the conversation. But if you leave an open space, somebody will! We put the theorem to test, and it worked twice! This is what geeks do at bars!

Great night! Met awesome people. There is a StartupDrinks this Sunday but unfortunately I will not be there because I will be at the Startup School in Stanford. Conclusions for the night? We need to figure out how to explain what the Semantic Web is, in 45 seconds.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What is the Semantic Web?

I just finished working on a poster about my research for the Research Forum at UT. The public will be the College of Natural Sciences in general, so it wasn't worth getting to technical. I knew this was my opportunity to do a great "What is the Semantic Web" poster, and then on the side talk about my research. And now, I have the opportunity to share with y'all what the Semantic Web is, or at least, what I consider the Semantic Web to be. I would really appreciate your comments!

Obviously, we need a definition and this is mine: The Semantic Web is an extension of the current web which provides a common framework that allows effective discovery, integration and reuse of data in which the semantics of the data is defined, making it possible for the web to understand the request of people and machines to use the data.

So what next? Oh... that famous Semantic Web Layer Cake. As long as you know what URI, XML, you can then research what RDF, RDFS and OWL is and even understand it! If not, I'll explain it very briefly.

A URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) is a compact string of characters used to identify a name or a resource. A URL (www.domain.com) is a URI. When I met Tim Berners-Lee, he specifically said that URL should not be used anymore. Instead, everybody should use URI. If you have a problem with that, you should take it up with him. XML (eXtensible Markup Language) is like HTML, but you can also make up your own tags.

RDF, RDFS and OWL deserve their own post, and that will happen in the future (maybe next week). Briefly RDF is a framework for describing resources. What??? RDF represents triples. What??? If you the sentence "Juan is a Student", this represents a subject-predicate-object, and that is the triple that RDF represents. RDFS and OWL are ontology languages. So what is an ontology? The best definition I have seen is a "specification of a conceptualization". In other words, it represents the concepts within a specific domain and the relationship between the concepts.

Well, now that I kind of explained the layer cake, let me go on. In this poster I wanted to show some how what the Semantic Web is going to be. So obviously the terms Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 came to mind. The three-tier architecture represents the Web 2.0 while the Semantic Web will be part of the Web 3.0. I don't believe that it is the Web 3.0 There are a lot of definitions of what Web 3.0 and that also deserves another post. But with that in mind, I thought of this image:

Somehow what I wanted to do explain that the current three tier architecture that supports the Web 2.0 should be integrated with the Semantic Web. The problem is that the layer cake is very overwhelming and so complicated to explain. The interesting thing is that the three-tier architecture is very similar to the following...

If you compare the bottom layer of both images, you can see that the three-tier architecture only has databases while the Semantic Web has a web of data (html, xml, relational databases, etc). In the application layer, RDF and the ontologies need to integrated with the application layer of the three-tier architecture. Applications will use SPARQL and inference engines to do the sweet stuff of the Semantic Web. The red stuff shows my research interest. There is no standard way of integrating relational database content with the Semantic Web, but again, that is for another post.

Another way to explain how the Web 2.0 should be "transformed" to the "Web 3.0" (or Semantic Web)...

And this is left for an open discussion.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

My first post

My name is Juan Sequeda and I consider myself a Semantic Web evangelist. I was first exposed to the Semantic Web through Oscar Corcho while I was studying at the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia, South America. I then transfered to UT Austin to finish my undergrad in Computer Sciences in the Fall of 2006. I will be graduating in exactly 1 month and then starting my Ph.D here at UT Austin under the supervision of Daniel Miranker. My current research area is integration of relational database and ontologies for the Semantic Web.

So enough about me and lets cut to the chase. In the last couple of weeks, I have realized the interest about Semantic Web in the Austin tech community. It all started when I met Casey Grooms and his start-up idea. Through him, I got in contact with several more entrepeneurs in Austin including John Erik Metcalf and John De Oliveria. John Erik is leading a co-working company in Austin called Conjunctured which will finally allow techy and entrepreneurs in Austin get together in a common place and "exercise their minds". JohnDeo is the founder of Cyc Foundation, which gives access to the Cyc Knowledge Base. Anyways, a couple of weeks ago I got an email about a Semantic meetup. I was excited because I was looking forward to meet more people in Austin who are interested in Semantics. At that meeting JohnDeo told us about Cyc's monthly meetup to discuss the Semantic Web. 

Last week several of us got together at the Cyc headquarters and had a teleconference with Mike Bergman, the CEO of Zitgist who showed us is UMBEL project. At the beginning, this was hard to understand, but after looking at a visual example, it all came together. UMBEL can be considered the way to create an upper ontology for all the ontologies used in the Linked Data cloud. And the cool thing, is that it uses Cyc's Knowledge Base. Therefore, Austin will be the center of a lot of new and cool Semantic Web applications. 

At the end of our meeting, John Erik announced that he wanted to get all the young entrepreneurs together to explain them what the Semantic Web is and what it can accomplish. I truly believe this is the start of something big in Austin.

Therefore I will keep up to date any events that we will be having in Austin, and also share interesting links, ideas, projects about the Semantic Web.

lets start...