TR: But it’s not just a matter of exchanging data from a multitude of fields?
B-L: No. There are also challenges around maintaining privacy and intellectual property while making effective use of the information. For example, when searching for a new drug, one might want to join epidemiological data with external factors such as weather and travel and demographics to find out how a disease is transmitted and what sorts of people are predisposed to it. One may then seek to connect it to a genetic trait and start asking what proteins are associated with that, and what they enable and block in the biology of the human cell. Subsequently, one may want to connect the chemicals involved in those pathways to symptoms of diseases, and also to possible chemicals that could be used as a drug. There’s a great deal to gain, which is why a lot of people are getting very fired up about working on the life sciences with Semantic Web applications.
TR: Is there an existing application that shows how the Semantic Web can form such connections?
B-L: If you want to play with the Semantic Web, you can make a friend-of-a-friend file. In a FOAF file [the data component of a personal home page, formatted in a standardized way], you can publish stuff about yourself, your organization, your publication, places, or photographs. You can have a pointer that says “this is a photograph about me” and other data about the photograph, such as who else is in it.
To create a FOAF file, you must fill out a form, such as the one at http://www.ldodds.com/foaf/foaf-a-matic.html From this information, a Semantic Web-readable text file is generated that you can add to your personal website. There are semantic websites that will pull that data up and give you things like a list of photographs linking you to somebody else. I’m three photographs from Frank Sinatra because I’m photographed with Bill Clinton who’s been photographed with one of the Kennedys who’s been photographed with Frank Sinatra. That’s a silly application, but it really shows the power of the reuse of information.
TR: Can you describe a more serious example?
B-L: It’s exciting to see industry focused on implementing these standards. Tool kits from HP and IBM, authoring applications from Adobe, smart content management solutions from Profium and Brandsoft, and search engines from Network Inference are all working to create a Semantic Web at various scales. These and other technologies are being adopted by communities that in turn revolutionize how these groups collaborate and communicate. This is what’s happening in life sciences, which we spoke about earlier.
In the U.K., the Semantic Web Environmental Directory is a prototype of a new kind of directory of environmental organizations and projects. Rather than centralizing the storage, management, and ownership of the information, SWED simply harvests data and uses it to create the directory. From a social perspective, there’s an application nicknamed Fatcats from FoafCorp [a Semantic Web project that extends the friend-of-a-friend format to corporate entities] that allows you to pick a company, and it shows you who’s on its board by displaying a graph of connected people. When you click on one of the people, it shows you all the boards they’re a member of. You can start exploring the spheres of influence in American corporate culture.
The exciting thing is when you find that one of these people has a FOAF file, and you start going from corporate culture into personal culture, and then into photographs, and then into weather information, and then booking flights, and then into booking restaurants, and then into figuring out what wine to have for a meal.
TR: You often talk about the importance of “Web universality.” What do you mean?
B-L: One of the fundamental properties of the Web is the fact that it is just one space, and it’s a consensual space. It should be independent of the hardware you use. It should be independent of the software you use or the operating system it’s running on. It should also be independent of what culture you’re in, or whether you’re writing a wonderful, carefully edited document, or whether you’re scribbling something on the back of the proverbial envelope. And it should be independent of what language you’re using, what character set, whether your letters go up and down, left to right, or right to left. Also, people should be able to access that information even if they have disabilities. At W3C we call this concept “one Web – for anyone, everywhere, on anything.”
TR: And there’s a threat to this universality?
B-L: There was a proposal to make a special top-level domain called “.mobi.” All the websites that would work with mobile phones would be put in that area; it would be the place for Web content for mobile devices. But there should be just one URL, or Web address, for something. To segregate content into a .mobi corral is the wrong way to do it. We’ve got lots of standards at W3C for allowing a website to perform optimally whether you’re looking at it from a cell phone or from a huge screen. But obviously, if you put a “.mobi” at the end of a domain name, then you’re saying, “That’s a special place for stuff you can see on your cell phone.”
TR: What about other top-level domains – .biz, .info, et cetera – that have been proposed to relieve the name crunch in the .com domain?
B-L: Adding new top-level domains won’t help that. What people remember is the string between “www” and “.com.” So if there is a .info or a .biz after it, that would just confuse them. It means that they have to remember the whole thing instead of just the brand between the “www” and the dot.
Also, of course, you have a registration fee system for financial transactions. Small companies or individuals who have a domain may feel that, in order to avoid confusion, they have to keep buying these other ones. Just the yearly rental for a family adds quite a lot to their Internet bill.
TR: There is a power struggle between the United Nations and ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which manages how domain names and Internet addresses are issued. What’s your opinion?
B-L: Some countries are concerned, rightfully, that ICANN runs under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Internet is an international thing, and even if it may be carefully run by ICANN in the best interests of the whole world, there is a strong feeling in some countries that the fact that ICANN is funded by the U.S. government means that it is U.S. controlled, and that that is unfair.
My feeling is that this asymmetry should be removed carefully. It’s important that it’s seen to be fair. However, the fact is that ICANN has been set up and is running, and it should not be suddenly thrown away. Making something that represents the stakeholders in a balanced way really takes a lot of experience and constant reappraisal. Maybe ICANN should have more U.N. funding, but I don’t think it should have to become overnight more like a U.N. organization.
A lot of confusion in this area is caused when people use the term “Internet governance.” They start off talking about domain names, which is really a very specific area, and then end up talking about privacy, copyright, confidentiality, commercial terms, and all sorts of parts of the normal legal system. People shouldn’t think ICANN runs everything that happens on the Internet. ICANN just plays a very specific role.
TR: Do you believe that the World Wide Web will be your most important contribution?
B-L: My role necessarily had to morph from lone designer through community agitator to lead architect and facilitator of consensus at W3C. But I suspect the Web will be my most important contribution – although it required being in the right place at the right time. The mistake, though, is to think that it is finished. The Semantic Web is just the application of weblike design to data; it will be many more decades before we will be able to say we have really implemented the Web idea in the full, if ever we can.
TR: Besides the Semantic Web, do you have any other dreams or wishes for the future of the Web?
B-L: Oh, lots and lots! I have always wanted the Web to be a more creative, flexible medium, with annotation systems and group editors and so on. I’m excited about the new portable devices we can use for the Web, about speech-based technology, and a lot of other things. Once you start with the basic Web idea, so much stuff becomes possible.