The UK Government’s 7 December publication of Putting the frontline first, and the 21 January unveiling of the data.gov.uk site, mark the latest in a series of significant endorsements for the concept of Linked Data, to which the Prime Minister looks in ‘radically opening up publicly held data to promote transparency;’
“we will aim for the majority of government-published information to be reusable, linked data by June 2011; and we will establish a common licence to reuse data which is interoperable with the internationally recognised Creative Commons model.” (Putting the frontline first, p28)
From early beginnings in 2006 as one of Tim Berners-Lee’s Design Issues notes on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) site, Linked Data has recently become a rallying cry for those advocating Government transparency, but it has also found favour with the very different groups in search of new business models for the data-rich enterprise.
Building upon work undertaken on the Semantic Web at W3C and elsewhere, Linked Data takes us some way toward that vision by encouraging and facilitating the exposure of machine-readable data across the Web. Importantly, publication of Linked Data can be achieved without substantial investment in new systems and workflow, whilst quickly creating opportunities for meaningful use and re-use of existing content.
JISC last looked seriously at the Semantic Web in 2005, when Brian Matthews prepared Semantic Web Technologies for TechWatch;
“The Semantic Web is an ambitious vision, first proposed by Tim Berners-Lee, to extend todays Web imbuing it with a sense of meaning. The articulation of this vision in a now famous article in Scientific American has led to a wide reaching research programme. This programme is resulting in the development of new technologies for describing items of Web-based information and their inter-relationships, but what impact is this development likely to have on Higher and Further Education? This TechWatch report provides an introduction to the Semantic Web the vision, programme and technologies, but also explains where we currently are in its development and what the likely impact will be on education in areas such as information management and discovery tools, digital libraries, supporting Web-based interaction, and e-learning. It also proposes some realistic timescales for adoption and outlines the current and potential role of the UK FHE community.” (Semantic Web Technologies report abstract, TechWatch site)
Linked Data was, of course, unmentioned, and Matthews’ conclusions with respect to the slow-burning Semantic Web’s importance to Higher Education proved (perhaps unsurprisingly) muted;
“The Semantic Web has great potential, and with direct application to the HE and FE sector. However, it has been a long time in development and does require an investment of time, expertise and resources. Nevertheless, the time does seem right to start to think how best to use the simpler applications of the technology.
So what should HE or FE institutions consider doing now? Institutional libraries should be considering joining collaborations to explore how Semantic Web can best be exploited and investing in training staff, with a view to providing Semantic Web solutions within the next two to three years. Information science professionals and academics working in particular fields should work together to provide the vocabularies and domain ontologies required to support particular fields. Particular communities and research groups could be looking at exploiting the emerging infrastructure to enhance the interaction of their community.” (Semantic Web Technologies, pp15-16)
Earlier this year, the Semantic Technologies in Learning Teaching project reported on the current state of the art with respect to provision of tools in the learning and teaching space. Although the project was not initially concerned with Linked Data, the topic is addressed within the final report;
“Analysis of the findings of this report suggests that building a field of linked open data across UK HE/FE institutions by selectively and securely exposing repositories and institutional data (often data that can already be found on institutionsʼ web pages) can provide significant value and pave the way for pedagogically meaningful applications powered by application-wide or community-wide agreed ontologies in the future. Encouraging institutions to use linked open data technologies and to document successful adoption of semantic technologies is considered of critical importance in this report. HE/FE challenges can be addressed by efficiently linking information across institutions.” (JISC SemTech Project Report, p4. My emphasis)
We begin this latest report – which has been commissioned specifically to explore the opportunities presented to HE by Linked Data – by bringing Matthews’ 2005 survey of the Semantic Web up to date, before looking more specifically at the growing interest in Linked Data as a concept both inside Higher Education and beyond.
We conclude by making a series of concrete recommendations to further adoption within the community, identifying areas for future JISC activity as well as pragmatic steps that may be taken in the short term by individual projects, universities, and associated groups.