Posted:April 20, 2008

There’s Some Cool Tools in this Box of Crackerjacks

UMBEL is today releasing a new sandbox for its first iteration of Web services. The site is being hosted by Zitgist. All are welcomed to visit and play.

And, UMBEL is What, Again?

UMBEL (Upper-level Mapping and Binding Exchange Layer) is a lightweight reference structure for placing Web content and data in context with other data. It is comprised of about 21,000 subject concepts and their relationships — with one another and with external vocabularies and named entities.

Each UMBEL subject concept represents a defined reference point for asserting what a given chunk of content is about. These fixed hubs enable similar content to be aggregated and then placed into context with other content. These subject context hubs also provide the aggregation points for tying in their class members, the named entities which are the people, places, events, and other specific things of the world.

The backbone to UMBEL is the relationships amongst these subject concepts. It is this backbone that provides the contextual graph for inter-relating content. UMBEL’s subject concepts and their relationships are derived from the OpenCyc version of the Cyc knowledge base.

The UMBEL ontology is based on RDF and written in the RDF Schema vocabulary of SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organization System) with some OWL Full constructs to aid interoperability.

UMBEL’s backbone is also a reference structure for more specific domains or ontologies, thereby enabling further context for inter-relating additional content. Much of the sandbox shows these external relationships.

UMBEL’s Eleven

These first set of Web services provide online demo sandboxes, and descriptions of what they are about and their API documentation. The first 11 services are:

A CLASSy Detailed Report

The single service that provides the best insight to what UMBEL is all about is the Subject Concept Detailed Report. (That is probably because this service is itself an amalgam of some of the others.)

Starting from a single concept amongst the 21,000, in this case ‘Mammal’, we can get descriptions or definitions (the proper basis for making semantic relationships, not the ‘Mammal’ label), aliases and semsets, equivalent classes (in OWL terms), named entities (for leaf concepts), more general or specific external classes, and domain and range relationships with other ontologies. Here is the sample report for ‘Mammal’:

The discerning eye likely observes that while there are a rich set of relationships to the internal UMBEL subject concepts, coverage is still light for external classes and named entities. This sandbox is, after all, a first release and we are early in the mapping process. :)

But, it should also start to become clear that the ability of this structure to map and tie in all forms of external concepts and class structures is phenomenal. Once such class relationships are mapped (to date, most other Linked Data only occurs at the instance level), all external relationships and properties can be inherited as well. And, vice versa.

So, for aficionados of the network effect, stand back! You ain’t seen nothing yet. If we have seen amazing emergent properties arising from the people and documents on the Web, with data we move to another quantum level, like moving from organisms to cells. The leverage of such concept and class structures to provide coherence to atomic data is literally primed to explode.

Bloomin’ Concepts!

To put it mildly, trying to get one’s mind around the idea of 21,000 concepts and all of their relationships and all of their possible tie in points and mappings to still further ontologies and all of their interactions with named entities and all of their various levels of aggregation or abstraction and all of their possible translations into other languages or all of their contextual descriptions or all of their aliases or synonyms or all of their clusterings or all of their spatial relationships or all of the still more detailed relationships and instances in specific domains or, well, whew! You get the idea.

It is all pretty complex and hard to grasp.

One great way to wrap one’s mind around such scope is through interactive visualization. The first UMBEL service to provide this type of view is the Subject Concept Explorer, a screenshot of which is shown here:

But really, to gain the true feel, go to the service and explore for yourself. It feels like snorkeling through those schools of billions of tiny silver fish. Very cool!

These amazing visualizations are being brought to us by Moritz Stefaner, imho one of the best visualization and Flash gurus around. We will be showcasing more about Moritz’s unbelievable work in some forthcoming posts, where some even cooler goodies will be on display. His work is also on display at a couple of other sites that you can spend hours drooling over. Thanks, Moritz!

Missing Endpoints and Next Steps

You should note that developer access to the actual endpoints and external exposure of the subject concepts as Linked Data are not yet available. The endpoints, Linked Data and further technical documentation will be forthcoming shortly.

The currently displayed services and demos provided on this UMBEL Web services site are a sandbox for where the project is going. Next releases will soon provide as open source under attribution license:

  • The formal UMBEL ontology written in OWL Full and SKOS
  • Technical documentation for the ontology and its use and extension
  • Freely accessible Web services according to the documentation already provided
  • Technical documentation and reports for the derivation of the subject concepts from OpenCyc and the creation and extension of semsets and named entities related to that structure.

When we hit full stride, we expect to be releasing still further new Web services on a frequent basis.

BTW, for more technical details on this current release, see Fred Giasson’s accompanying post. Fred is the magician who has brought much of this forward.

Posted:March 2, 2008

Glut: Mastering Information Through The Ages

Wright’s Book Has Strong Scope, Disappointing Delivery

When I first saw the advanced blurb for Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages by Alex Wright I thought, “Wow, here is the book I have been looking for or wanting to write myself.” As the book jacket explains:

Spanning disciplines from evolutionary theory and cultural anthropology to the history of books, libraries and computer science, Wright weaves an intriguing narrative that connects such seemingly far-flung topics as insect colonies, Stone Age jewelry, medieval monasteries, Renaissance encyclopedias, early computer networks, and the World Wide Web. Finally, he pulls these threads together to reach a surprising conclusion, suggesting that the future of the information age may lie deep in our cultural past.

Wham, bang! The PR snaps with promise and scope!

These are themes that have been my passion for decades, and I ordered the book as soon as it was announced. It was therefore with great anticipation that I cracked open the cover as soon as I received it. (BTW, the actual date of posting for this review is much later only because I left this review in draft for some months; itself an indication of how, unfortunately, I lost interest in it. :( ).

Otlet is a Gem

The best aspect of Glut is the attention it brings to Paul Otlet, quite likely one of the most unique and overlooked innovators in information science in the 20th century. Frankly, I had only an inkling of who Otlet was prior to this book, and Wright provides a real service by bringing more attention to this forgotten hero.

(I have since gone on to try to learn more about Otlet and his pioneering work in faceted classification — as carried on more notably by S. R. Ranganathan with the Colon classification system — and his ideas behind the creation of the Mundaneum in Brussels in 1910. The Mundaneum and Otlet’s ideas were arguably a forerunner to some aspects of the Internet, Wikipedia and the semantic Web. Unfortunately, the Mundaneum and its 14 million ‘permanent encyclopedia’ items were taken over by German troops in World War II. The facility was ravaged and sank into obscurity, as did Otlet’s reputation, who died in 1944 before the war ended. It was not until Boyd Rayward translated many of Otlet’s seminal works to English in the late 1980s that he was rediscovered.)

Alex Wright’s own Google Tech Talk from Oct. 23, 2007, talks much about Otlet, and is a good summary of some of the other topics in Glut.

Stapled Book Reviews

The real disappointment in Glut is the lack of depth and scholarship. The basic technique seemed to be find a prominent book on a given topic, summarize it in a popularized tone, sprinkle in a couple of extra references from the source book relied on for that chapter to show a patina of scholarship, and move on to the next chapter. Then, add a few silly appendices to pad the book length.

So, we see, for example, key dependence on a relative few sources for the arguments and points made. Rather than enumerate them here, one approach if interested is to simply peruse the expanded bibliography on Wright’s Glut Web site. That listing is actually quite a good basis for beginning your own collection.

Books are Different

It seems like today, with blogging and digital content flying everywhere, that a greater standard should be set for creating a book and asking the buying public to actually pay for something. That greater standard should be effort and diligence to research the topic at hand.

I feel like Glut is related to similar efforts where not enough homework was done. For example, see Walter Underwood, who in his review of the Everything is Miscellaneous (not!) book, chastises author David Weinberger on similar grounds. (A conclusion I had also reached after viewing this Weinberger video cast.)

In summary, I give Wright an A for scope and a C or D in execution and depth. I realize that is a pretty harsh review; but it is one occasioned by my substantially unmet high hopes and expectations.

The means by which information and document growth has come to be organized, classified and managed have been major factors in humanity’s progress and skyrocketing wealth. Glut‘s skimpy hors d’œuvre merely whet the appetite: the full historical repast has yet to be served.

Posted:September 29, 2007

zLinks Kicks Out an Old Favorite

zLinks from ZitgistThe issue of popups, thumbnails, link indicators, and other visual clues for blog content has been an interesting and difficult one. When Snap first came out with its preview popup thumbnails of referenced links (“Snap Shots“), it became all the rage until there was a backlash against ‘popupitis‘.

Similarly, many of us, for styling and design considerations (perhaps not always for the best?!), have mucked around with our CSS to the point that a standard link is sometimes hard to discern. You’ve seen them, and I have myself been guilty:

  • different link colors than the original Web 1.0 link blue,
  • sometimes no underlining,
  • sometimes dotted underlines,
  • even boxes, and (horrors!)
  • even upper and lower borders!

As we get clever on this, we then need to compensate with other visual clues for the link.

In my case, about a year ago I adopted the terrific Link Indication WordPress plug-in by Michael Woehrer, which enabled me to type-by-icon the kind of link you, the reader, sees. In my own case, I had icons (for example) for Wikipedia, PDFs, RDF, general external links and some others. The idea, of course, is that faithful readers would learn these subtle distinctions and appreciate the visual cues. (Now for the obligatory, yeah, right!)

To avert symptoms similar to popupitis, it is important to keep these visual cues subtle and (hopefully) unobtrusive. I was actually fairly proud of my Link Indication icons in this regard.

zLinks Raises the Link to the ‘Power of Z’

I then began playing with zLinks about two weeks ago, and wrote a blog posting about it. Check that out and the update blog notice from Fred Giasson to learn more. And, if you have WordPress, you can download and install the plug-in yourself.

But now the game has changed. Instantaneously, my links became more meaningful, and my link representations on my blog more fat.

The links became more meaningful because now I had the wealth of linkages and relationships tied to every single embedded link on my writings. I have been an aggressive “linker” and this has meant a hidden wealth of interlinkages automatically available to my postings and writings. Sure, I don’t often or always want to explore this richness (and, maybe, many if not most of my readers don’t have that interest all the time as well), but, simply having it there has opened my eyes to what has been called ‘linked data.’

Further, the basis of relating a link to a MIME type or similar document-level distinction now seems primitive. The meaningful distinction is no longer whether the document is a Powerpoint or PDF, but what subjects it is about and who, what, where and when it describes. The link now becomes not a doorway to a document house, but a reference to individual rooms or objects therein.

This richness and its implications are only now becoming apparent to me (and in a still-forming way). Moreover, through such things as backlinks, directed connections, implied connections and many others, this now-emerging world of interconnectedness is still revealing itself.

The new branding of the Zitgist Browser Linker to zLinks, I think, is a nice acknowledgement by the developers that something fundamentally new is afoot. It has been exciting (and rewarding to me) that as one of the early users of this capability that the developers (Fred, especially, thanks!) have sought me out for input and ideas.

The enhancements in this most recent Zitgist release tell me we have truly entered the era of the ‘Power of Z.’ Namely, the reach of a zLinks link is to make real today’s basis to deliver data interconnectedness. This is not the future; it is today. And, it is profound and exciting.

A Diet is the Only Cure for Iconitis

So, with a breaking of document classification boundaries (such as MIME type) to one that is now attuned to atomic data, any imaginable classification scheme becomes possible. But in this open typing, how do we handle the poor, overburdened link? How do we convey its power and reach? We’d like to convey some meaning, but where does it end? Readability would never accept Dewey Decimal tags or literal metadata text or any other such construct appended to the standard link.

From a practical standpoint, my first challenge was including the standard zLinks “mini-Z” icon associated with the zLinks popup that is the entree point to all of this interlinkedness richness. (By the way, have you been mousing over these icons to see the cool zLinks popups? Let alone following those reference links to their own Zitgist template reports?) The problem was, here was another new and diverting icon on top of the ones I was using with Link Indication — in other words, my link representations were becoming fat.

To add insult to injury, when I, as blog author, need to annotate or make other local notes on my local zLinks capabilities, I also need to call up and deal with the zLinks annotation facility. And, it too, has its own icon. So, after installing zLinks, I found I was now suffering from a new disease, iconitis, that has symptoms dangerously close to popupitis.

Thus, here is what one of my links looked like with the standard Link Indication icon and the zlinks annotation and standard icons while in authoring mode:

Example Link Icons

My gawd, my links were getting as adorned with all manner of fruits and nuts worse than tutti frutti.

Since I am as much in authoring mode as not, this distraction is in my face about half of the time. So, my decision: Get ‘link lean’ — skinny down those link icons and references, sufficient to where things again become usable and readable.

It was time to say goodbye to Link Indication.

The Scope and Longer-term Paradigm Remains Unclear

There is really no need to make a heavy point of this except to note that the Web will continue to be ubiquitous as an access point to information, that information will devolve to be object- and data-centric and not at the document level, and the link (in keeping with its essence of the Web) will be the essential gateway for access.

I like the decisions Zitgist has made for zLinks: to provide a single, subtle and small icon, that itself brings up its own dialog showing the richness of the linked data support behind the embedded link. This popup is made available only when desired after a mouseover with a short delay (keeping the popup hidden during standard mouse movements). But then, when invoked, a new separate world of data types and links with expandable icons and tooltips is revealed:

zLinks Popoup

This richness can be shown in the following example zLinks popup for the embedded link to Sweet Tools, in which all 600 tools are made available from a single link! This scrollable and extensible design is very much in keeping with growth and potential and meaning for the once lowly link:

zLinks Popoup

So, with zLinks, I and my readers may have now given up showing links by MIME type, but we have gained the power of complete connectedness with the Web.

Let’s all raise a toast to the ‘Power of Z’ and to keeping links lean!

Posted:September 16, 2007

Sweet Tools Listing

AI3's Sweet Tools Listing Updated to Version 10

This AI3 blog maintains Sweet Tools, the largest listing of about 800 semantic Web and -related tools available. Most are open source. Click here to see the current listing!

AI3's listing of semantic Web and -related tools has just been updated to version 10. This version adds 36 new tools since the last update on June 19, bringing the new total to 578 tools.

This version 10 update of Sweet Tools also includes an upgrade to version 2 of the lightweight Exhibit display (thanks again, MIT's Simile program and David Huynh, plus congratulations on your Ph.D, David!) and is separately provided as a simple table for quick download and copying.

Background on prior listings and earlier statistics may be found on these previous posts:

With interim updates periodically over that period.

Because of comments expirations on prior posts, this entry is now the new location for adding a suggested new tool. Simply provide your information in the comments section, and the tool will be included in the next update.

Posted:September 11, 2007

rdf-zitgist-wordpress.png Zitgist’s Plug-in Exposes Linked Data for Hundreds of Thousands of WordPress Sites

Notice Anything New at the End of AI3‘s Links ??? (hint: )

The essence of the Web is the link. We use it to navigate, discover, form communities and get high rankings (or not!) for our Web pages on search engines. But, each link carries much more behind it than what has generally been exposed. That is, until now . . . .

Frédérick Giasson is a pragmatic innovator of the structured Web and semantic Web. Most recently, his efforts have included Ping the Semantic Web (that aggregates RDF published on the Web), the Zitgist semantic Web browser (that enables that RDF data to be viewed in useful ways), TalkDigger (for finding and sharing topical Web discussions), and efforts on a variety of ontologies, including jointly with me on UMBEL.

I have been an aggressive “linker” for some time and try to refer to Wikipedia often for definitions or background as well. Thus, Fred’s most recent efforts to continue to add value to the link as the basic coin of the Web realm really caught my eye.

What is zLinks?

In the early days of the Web, links were used solely to visit specific Web pages or locations within those documents. Somewhat later, actions such as searching or purchasing items could be associated with a link. Most recently, with the emergence of the semantic Web, the very nature of the link has become ambiguous, potentially representing any of the link’s former uses or either direct or indirect references to data and resources.

The Zitgist zLinks plug-in now makes these link uses explicit from within WordPress blogs.

Thus, we see that links can fulfill three different purposes, in rough order of their emergence:

  1. To visit Web pages and locations
  2. To potentially take actions (say, buy or search), and
  3. To retrieve data regarding resources.

The emergence of linked data and the semantic Web (or at least the provision of data via the structured Web) are making the use of the link more complicated and ambiguous. Moreover, sometimes a link is an indirect reference to where data exists, and not the actual resource itself.

What Zitgist’s zLinks does is to make these uses explicit and to remove ambiguities. Further, if a link is not to an actual resource but only a reference to it, zLinks resolves to the link’s correct destination. And, still further, a zLinks link is the gateway to still additional links from its reference destination, making the service a powerful jumping off point in the true spirit of the interlinked Web.

To my knowledge, zLinks is is the first and purest implementation of what Kingsley Idehen has termed the “enhanced anchor” or <a++>. RDFa and embedded RDF have similar objectives but are not premised on resolving the existing link.

Like the SIOC Import Plug-in, which imports SIOC metadata into a WordPress blog, the zLinks tool recognizes the importance of standard blogging software and automated background tools to expose data and capabilities. Since WordPress has many hundreds of thousands of site owners and bloggers — not to mention hundreds of millions of visitors — zLinks could be an important first exposure for many to the real power of linking and the semantic Web.

How Do You Use It?

As a site owner, zLinks works identically to other plug-ins: simply install it and then it works smoothly and easily.

As a site user who might encounter a zLinks icon in a WordPress blog, all you need to do is click on mouse over the zLinks launcher icon at the end of any visible link. You will first get an alert that the system is working, retrieving all of the necessary background link information. You will then get a popup showing the results, similar to this one for my own AI3 blog:

Sample Zitgist Browser Linker Popup

The zLinks popup offers direct and related links, with the icons and other associated information an indicator as to the nature of the link and its purpose. In our example case, I click on my name reference, which brings up my FOAF file in the Zitgist browser:

Example FOAF File from Zitgist Browser
[Click for full image]

Note how picture, mapping and other information is automatically “meshed” with my FOAF file. From this Zitgist browser location, I could obviously continue to explore still further links and relationships. In this manner, zLinks adds an entirely new dynamic dimension to the concept of ‘interlinking.’

If the initial zLinks link references data, that data is now resolved to its proper direct location, and is presented as RDF with further meshing and manipulation available. Other resources may take you directly to a Web page or perform other actions. Some of those actions, for example, may be to format data results in specific views (timelines, maps, charts, tables, graphs, structured reports, etc.). If the sources are data, the ability to make transformations or present the data in various views opens a rich horizon of options.

Tweaks and Caveats

I made some minor tweaks to the Zitgist distribution as provided. First, I replaced the initial link icon — – with this one –– that is smaller and more in keeping with my local WordPress theme. I did this simply by replacing the mini_rdf.gif image in the /public_html/wp-content/plugins/zitgist-browser-linker/imgs/ directory.

Then, also in keeping with my local theme, I made the text in the popup a bit smaller. I did this simply by adding a font-size: 80%; property to the style.css stylesheet in the /public_html/wp-content/plugins/zitgist-browser-linker/css/ directory.

And, that was it! Simple and sweet.

It is also important to realize that this is just a first-release prototype. Some initial bugs have been discovered and worked out, sometimes the server site is down, and longer-term potentialities are only now beginning to emerge. But, this is still professional software with much thought behind it and much potential in front of it. If it breaks, so what? It is free and it is fun.

Where Next?

To all of you out there new to RDF and structured, linked data, I say: Play and enjoy!

zLinks is only beginning to touch the most visible part of the iceberg. It is pretty clear that the use and usefulness of links are only now being understood. Harking back to the original listing of three possible uses for a link it is clear that “actions” and the use of the link itself as a referrer and “mini-banner” on the Web are still not appreciated, let alone exploited.

It is interesting that AdaptiveBlue has also come out with a SmartLinks approach that differs somewhat from the Zitgist approach (items and linkages are constructed and then referred to from a central location), but their screenshot does affirm the untapped potential of links.

The W3C semantic Web community continues to grapple with resource/link terminology and nuances, the implications of which will be deferred to another day and another blog entry. However, suffice it to say that with a growing ‘Web of data’ and linked data, not to mention the original document vision and then one of commerce and services, the once lowly link is growing mighty indeed!