Posted:January 24, 2007

No Database? No Problem!

Structure for the Masses

or

Instant Mashups between WordPress, Google Spreadsheets and Exhibit

The past couple of days has seen a flurry of activity and much excitement revolving around a new “database-free” mashup and publication system called Exhibit. Another in a string of sneaky-cool software from MIT’s Simile program (and written by David Huynh, a pragmatic semantic Web developer of the first order), Exhibit (and its sure to follow rapid innovations) will truly revolutionize Web publishing and the visualization and presentation of structured data. Exhibit is quite simply “structure for the masses.”

What is It?

With just a few simple steps, even the most novice blog author can now embed structured data — such as sortable and filtered table displays, thumbnails, maps, timelines and histograms — in her blog posts and blog pages. Using Exhibit, you can now create rich data visualizations of web pages using only HTML (and optional CSS and Javascript code).

Exhibit requires no traditional database technology, no server-side code, and no need for a web server. Here is a sampling of Exhibit‘s current capabilities:

  • No external databases or hassles
  • Data filtering and sorting
  • Simple HTML embeds and calls
  • Automatic and dynamic page layouts and results rendering
  • Completely tailorable (with CSS and Javascript)
  • Direct updates and presentations (mashups) from Google spreadsheets
  • Pre-prepared timelines, map mashups, tabular display options, and Web page formatting
  • Easily embedded in WordPress blogs (see the first tutorial here).

Exhibit is as simple as defining a spreadsheet; after that you have a complete database! And, if you want to get wild and crazy with presentation and display, then that is easy as well!

What Are Some Examples?

Though Exhibit has been released barely one month, already there are some pretty impressive examples:

What Are People Saying?

Granted, we’re only talking about the last 24 hours or so, but interesting people are noticing and commenting on this phenomenon:

  • Ajaxian“Exhibit is a new project that lets you build rich sorting and filtering data applications in a simple way.”
  • Danny Ayers“Although the person using these tools doesn’t need to think about gobbledegook like RDF, when they use the tools, they are putting first class data on the web in a Semantic Web-friendly fashion.”
  • David Huynh“Now, we’re not just talking about the usual suspects of domains like photos and bookmarks. We’re talking about any arbitrary domain of data — Yes, the real world data. The data that people care about. I am hoping that we can create tools that let the average blogger easily publish structured data without ever having to coin URIs or design or pick ontologies — But there it is: this is, in my humble opinion, a beginning of something great.”
  • Kyler “If you don’t see the value of this, you are a fool.”
  • Derek Kinsman“Exhibit is an amazing web app … I am beginning to work alongside my WordPress mates in the hopes that we can create some sort of Administration area inside WordPress that connects to the Google accounts. Right inside WP. Also, we’re attempting to create some sort of plugin or downloadable template to which Exhibit can run mostly out of the box.”

What is Coming?

Johan Sundström has created an Instant Google Spreadsheets Exhibit, which lets you turn any Google spreadsheet (with certain formatting requirements) into an “exhibit” just by pasting in its public feed URL with immediate faceted browsing; maps and timelines are forthcoming.

Well, a WordPress plug-in is in the works (to be announced, with Derek helping to take the lead on it). Though incorporation into a blog is easy, it does require the author to have system administration rights and access to the WordPress server. A plug-in could remove those hurdles and make usage still easier.

Exhibit‘s very helpful online tutorials are being expanded, particularly with more examples and more templates. For those seriously interested in the technology, definitely monitor the Simile project site.

There continues to be activity and expansion of the Babel translation formats. You can now convert BibTeX, Excel, Notation 3 (N3), RDF/XML or tab-separated values (TSV) to a choice of Exhibit JSON , N3 or RDF/XML. And, since Exhibit itself internally stores its data representation as triples, it is tantalizing to think that another Simile project, RDFizers, with its impressive storehose of RDF converters, may also be more closely tied with Babel. Is it possible that Exhibit JSON may become the lingua franca of small-scale data representation formats?

And, within the project team of Huynh and his Ph.D. thesis advisor, David Karger, there are also efforts underway to extend the syntax and functionality of Exhibit. We’ve just seen the expansion to direct Google spreadsheet support, and support for more spreadsheet functionality is desired, including possible string concatenation and numeric operations.

Exhibit itself has been designed with extensibility in mind. Its linkage to Timeline, for example, is one such example. What will be critical in the weeks and months ahead is the development of a developer and user community surrounding Exhibit. There is presently a fairly active mailing list and I’m sure the MIT folks would welcome serious contributions.

Finally, other aspects of the Simile project itself and related intiatives at MIT have direct and growing ties to Exhibit both in terms of team members and developers and in terms of philosophy. You may want to check out these additional MIT projects including Longwell, Piggy Bank, Solvent, Semantic Bank, Welkin, DSpace, Haystack, Dwell, Ajax, Sifter, Relo plugin, Re:Search, Chickenfoot, and LAPIS. This is a program on the move, to which the closest attention is warranted.

Expected Growing Pains

There are some known issues sometimes with display in Safari and Opera browsers; these are being worked on and should be resolved shortly. There are also some style issues and conflicts when embedding in blogs (easily fixed with CSS modifications). There are likely performance problems when data sets get into the hundreds or thousands, but that exceeds Exhibit‘s lightweight objectives anyway. There may be other problems that emerge as use broadens.

These issues are to be expected and should not diminish playing with the system immediately. You’ll be amazed at what you can do, and how rapidly with so little code.

It has been a fun few days. It’s exciting to be able to be a camp follower during one of those seminal moments in Web development. And, so I say to David and colleagues at MIT and the band of merry collaborators on their mailing list: Thanks! This is truly cool.

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No Database? No Problem!

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Structure for the Masses or Instant Mashups between WordPress, Google Spreadsheets and Exhibit The past couple of days has seen a flurry of activity and much excitement revolving around a new “database-free” mashup and publication system called Exhibit. Another in a string of sneaky-cool software from MIT’s Simile program (and written by David Huynh, a […]

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