Ruben Verborgh is one of those amazing people I have crossed paths with on my Semantic Web journey. A professor of Semantic Technology, Ruben is a hard-working man (and a rising TEDx star) on a quest to decentralising the Web.
I met Ruben through the Solid project on my own way to finding the means to best support the project. I have read his work before – he has a wonderful web place, for which I don’t deny being envious – both because of its structure and its purple. But I have never had the chance to meet him in person. And one day, as he seemed to be genuinely interested in talking to a non-techie person like me being so enthusiastic about Solid, we met online. After that I couldn’t imagine a life without having Ruben in my Dialogue series.
So here I am, with great pleasure, introducing you Ruben’s answers to my questions. And before you dive in, just a quick note of gratitude to the people of otter.ai for a wonderful product (free voice to text tool). And of course, to sir Tim Berners-Lee for a Semantic Web to connect people, ideas, things and threads, throughout time, technology and thoughts.
Ruben, when did you first hear about the Semantic Web?
Well, actually I heard about the Semantic Web when I was looking for a Master’s thesis and a research topic in general.
I was looking for something that had to do with the Web and databases – those were the two things that I really liked to know. And as it turned out, there was a branch of research focusing on the web and data which turned out to be the Semantic Web. And interestingly enough, it took me quite some time to understand how simple things were. I was sent home with a book about RDF and a book about knowledge engineering. And I have read through them all but when you think of it, it is actually quite simple. It is just about links and it is just about triples.
The hard thing was understanding how easy the Semantic Web actually is.
In the context of your article Paradigm shifts for the decentralized Web, if decentralization and universality were connected by a typed link, what would it read?
Simply said, I think that universality needs decentralization.
The reason for that is universality is about making sure that the web is accessible by anyone in any place, using any device, whatever cultural background they have, language, disability and so on. And the problem when you have centralization is that ultimately one party is making decisions for a lot of us.
Decentralization ensures that we don’t need a single party to make decisions. And in that sense that helps universality because if you don’t find what you need in one place of the network , you might find it in another place.
By not depending on one central party or central force we can make the Web more universal.
What you find most charming about the concept of universality?
Well, that it provides a lot of freedom and independence for us all.
Basically, because universality was one of the big ideas behind the Web and this is the reason why the Web is a system that is working for almost 30 years now. And in computer science terms that is a very long time process to be alive.
The compatibility that university brings us is great. Because websites made in the 90s can still be viewed today and if people make websites in a proper way today, you can also still view them in a browser made in the 90s.
What I also like is that it minimizes the communication you need between different parties. Universality means that we all agree on a small set of things. And as long as we have that agreement, we are each free to do whatever we want. And this creates enormous diversity on the Web.
What do Web applications that emphasize serendipitous reuse of data and functionality through decentralization look like. Can you give me an example?
Well, for me serendipitous reuse means that I can pick an application and I can plug in different data sources.
What I was thinking a couple of years ago was for instance, I noticed in the app store that there was a separate app for visit London, visit Cambridge, visit Boston visit any city basically. And all those apps were essentially the same software with just different data.
So, I thought why don’t we just make software where you can plug in different data sources. And then we can choose the data sources. And if we specify the compatibility, then other people can make data sources and the people who are making apps. That gives us an interchangeability that is beyond what we have today. Because I might like one app, but I might not like the data has. So, by separating the two we can actually do things like that.
With Solid we took it a step further in the sense that it’s not just with open data center and fixed data sets you can do the same thing with personal data. I can just plug in different personal data and you get to see different things.
Why Linked Data as a concept and as a standard didn’t take off the way HTTP did?
Well, having a take off like HTTP is just very difficult. I think it’s a matter of timing. Technically speaking both are quite good, but it should be at the right timing, may be Linked Data is still not at that stage. And I think honestly that the world first needs to go through a Big Data face before we can start seeing the importance of Linked Data. Because Big Data has brought us enormous silos and Big Data was the way to go. Of course, if you have lots of data in one place, you can do lots of things. And now we’re starting to see the limits of Big Data. For example the fact that you cannot possibly store all data in one place. Even if you want to.
We have start seeing the attraction of Linked Data and the world together. Also, I think what was good about HTTP was its simplicity. HTTP was much too simpler and the alternatives around it too. This was was very important in getting it to work at a global scale.
And I think that RDF initially was too difficult. Like, as I mentioned before, I had read a book on RDF. And it took me such a long time to understand and say: “wait a minute, it’s actually quite simple!”. Because RDF started off at standards, at least the RDF standards, started off with XML.
To be honest, I still cannot read RDF&XML syntax, it just doesn’t make sense to do so. So the fact that they complexified it before just saying simply look, it’s just a triple. It’s just a link, also didn’t help the case.
You intentionally wrote your PhD thesis you have intentionally made the text accessible to a wider audience. What was your tougher challenge in translating the technology talk into Plain English?
Honestly, when I started my PhD, I didn’t have a lot of guidance and I saw papers by other authors. And they were all very complex, like they were written in a complex way. And I presume this was what I was supposed to do too. I thought it was my job to read complex texts. Boy, I was wrong. And now I’m doing my PhD. I did have a couple of communication courses, but all of them sucked. Because all of those courses explained how to do better what you’re already doing.
Except there was one course: Effective Scientific Communication. And this person said, you need to communicate differently. He was the first one to say that, and his message of simplicity and structure really appealed to me.
Writing in a simpler way has helped me think about Linked Data and my research in a separate way as well. Because if you can explain things simply, you also have a very good insight and what you’re doing and I think some of the things I’ve done to make area like Linked Data fragments might not have happened if I hadn’t learned to communicate better. It was through expressing ideas that I understood them better myself and I was able to evolve these ideas.
By the time I started writing my PhD, it wasn’t as big of a challenge anymore. I was more as used to it and also I was driven by the fact I want to write a book that people could read.
Of course I am realistic. It could be that the theme is just not read often. But if people want to read it, I think they can. And that’s also a reason that I wrote it and I put it on my website in HTML, so people can just find it through Google and start reading whatever piece they want to read.
Is there digital life beyond the Web?
Well…, if digital life means virtual communities, people communicating through a digital medium, yes. But I think the Web is the most open of those communities. For instance, there’s networks like Snapchat, and there’s online gaming. And some of these, perhaps, technologically, go over the Web. But they don’t have a lot to do with the Web. And what I dislike about them is that they’re closed systems. It looks like it is not easy to innovate with them. You have to use them as they’re given to you. So, my digital life happens on the Web. And of course, unfortunately, also over email.
I LOVED the video you made at Free Your Metadata. With that in mind, I want to ask you: Does freeing metadata mean freeing our mind?
When we went on the Free Your Metadata tours, we essentially visited a lot of libraries or institutions where people cared a lot about their own data. It was very beautiful to see.
We needed to tell them or teach them how they could gather data away so that they could more easily reuse it. And that was hard for many of those people because first of all they had a strong sense of ownership, but second they have also read about incompleteness. inconsistencies in their data.
The philosophy of “Hey, your data is worth much more if you give it away” was important. Or as we say in the video – If you love something, you give it away! So loving again is ultimately about letting go in the right time.
Staying on that track, is keeping your head high in the Linked Open Data Cloud good for your apps :)?
Well, I think that too many apps are thinking as silos nowadays. So, we probably want apps that think more in cloud. Apps that think more in an ecosystems kind of away. Apps that collaborate instead of issuing their own thing.
How our lives will change when more Linked Data begins to live in our browsers?
I think we will see much more connections because nowadays Web applications are not connected. There are two kinds of problems.
First of all, you have to give the same piece of data every time again. Every new application you want to use will ask for your name, your profile picture etc. And sometimes you it will ask more things about you. So having to re enter, all of that stuff will disappear if we can just link to whatever we have.
In Linked Data spirit, linking is the new sharing.
Instead of sharing your data, or sending it over while you use the link to it. Another consequence of that is that we won’t have synchronization problems. I mean, have you ever tried to change your profile picture, for instance? You have to change it on so many sites that people often have a profile picture that’s 10 years old. By linking to data instead of reentering it all the time, you’ll have a much smoother experience.
Teaching at IDLab, what is the major thread about knowledge and the Web which you want to highlight to your students?
Well, my first class actually, it’s not about computer science. It is about history and the impact of the Web. I have 20-year-old people who are often in my class, and since last year, every year, I do a poll.
I ask them, “Who of you still remember the moment when the Internet was not installed in your home?”. And last year was the first year where I didn’t see any hands. So, these are digital natives who do not remember the world before the Web. The Web has always been there, and they take something for granted. It starts getting really dangerous. And I think this is also why it’s so easy for Facebook and others to penetrate because people don’t realize what they’re losing.
So, I explain how the Web has changed communication, how it has changed education and business obviously. I also teach universality and why it’s really important and also explain them about how the Web is in danger.
And everything I do like RDF and Web applications, everything is brought from the angle of the Web.
You can tell Link Data from a database angle or from a logic angle. But for me, it’s always about the Web. If we want to put these data on the Web, how do we do that? So the importance of the Web and the fact that anyone can say anything about anything, that it’s an open world that you don’t control, I think that does more important things than just saying – hey, the Web is a special open environment that’s different from other programming environments.
What do you think is the key to connecting codes (ref. Switching Codes) – the codes of humanities and these of information technology?
First, I must admit that I haven’t read the book Switching Codes and I had a look at the abstract but I’m awfully grasping the ideas yet, so we’ll just be talking about connecting humanities and information technology.
My career is kind of interesting. In the sense that I was just starting as a PhD student and at a Semantic Web summer school I met a professor in digital humanities. So we both met in a small island in Greece, and we started talking. And what I noticed is that a lot of things that we think are trivial are actually not that trivial, because computer scientists – we stop if a proven solution works, but this is not the end of it at all. We want something to work but there’s still a whole road of bringing the technology to the people. Like how to use it, what are the parameters and so on.
I would dare to say that that depending on the invention, the roads from zero to technology, and then from technology to people, could be equal at length or maybe even the road to bring the technology to people could be the longer one of these two.
And what I learned is that you need to explain to people how to use technology, when it should be used. And also, of course, enable them to use it. It we are thinking too much about the technology as it is, we still want to emphasize technology too much. Instead we are to reemphasize the goals that we want to achieve for the technology. And that’s something I did as part of the Free Your Metadata story as well.
Who’s gonna interview the interviewer?
Ruben: And finally it is my turn to be the interviewer. So Theodora, let me think of a couple of questions.
Ruben: Why, why are you so passionate about this?
Where does your interest go from? Because it’s so nice to see someone from a different field being passionate about these things. Sometimes I think that the only people passionate about it are the computer scientists, and if I understand what is driving you, maybe I can evoke the same feelings or passion in other people who aren’t computer scientists.
Teodora: What really drives me is the idea of freedom of expression, freedom of knowledge transfer and ultimately freedom of exchange. I think of the Web from at least three perspectives:
- a place of freedom
- an independent medium for the human connection to unfold and thrive
- a giant corpus of texts to converse and create knowledge from and into
Put a Semantic Web layer on top of the above and it seems to me that we get a universal machine-readable layer of data on top of the content we use to embed and transfer knowledge into. And that possibility of a lingua franca for the code that weaves what we do, is thrilling. I often like to imagine the Web as yet another step towards what Borges described in “The Book of Sand”.
Ruben: Another question is, do you think we’re making things too complex?
Do you see possibilities for simplification in the story that we bring. And related to that is what do you see as, or or major challenges in our being the Semantic Web community or Linked Data.
Teodora: The simplification is a tricky thing. And that is something I have been thinking about these recent months. Are we doing a favour to newbies by showing the simplicity at the end of complexity, or are we actually depriving them of the road to walk the talk…
Maybe it is not that simple. I mean, it is, for you. But I am still struggling with creating Linked Data statements on my own, although Kingsley Idehen has been kind enough to provide all the needed instructions for this.
People want examples. Understanding, apart from the conceptual grasp, comes also with the experiential way of seeing, in other words from implementing. So, I want examples. How can I build a website like yours? I know the why, but the how is somewhat elusive. Why is Solid so hard to build. What data are exchange there. Where do data live? How are servers talking to each other and what makes the systems slow or unstable?
If these could be answered and explained and become part of a digital literacy of sorts, like the basics of data on the Web that we need? That could be one simplification – just talking about the complex things without saying this is too complex. Another simplification could be transforming the question of the Semantic Web unfolding into a matter of explaining how and why we, the people of the Web, can express ourselves in ways underpinned by universal data formats.
Ruben: What do you think is the one thing that we need to make a big step or make evolution?
Like if we have X then we would move so much faster what is x and who could build such a thing?
Teodora: The X for me is everybody understanding that we need to get our data right, in a standartized format, so that all the things that we use in our lives (increasingly becoming digital) can be fed with these data without the problems we see, say when we try to copy and paste from a PDF document….
And at the end of the day it is not about tech, although this is uber important, but about mindset, an intertwingled way of expression. And maybe the more scary part – an open way of doing things.
The challenge seems to be building a two-way continuum of communication and exchange between the people who wrangle Linked Data (enterprises included) and people who dive deep into the working of the human soul and the human connection. And aligning these not, but at least in some way building and curating spaces for a dynamics to unfold and breed solutions that are neither purely theoretical nor purely technical. And here is my turn for a shameless plug :) The above is the reason I have created The Intertextual Animal series. Because we need to talk through and align computer and culture codes. It is not about revolution, it is about an evolution.
Ruben Verborgh’s Quick Favourites
And now, time for an epilogue with the section Quick Favourites. Here are Ruben’s quick favourites.
Favourite layer of the Semantic Web stack?
There are different stacks obviously and many figures, but I like the Web Layer. I like the Web Layer most. I think I’m also very interested in reasoning. Reasoning is quite nice. And collecting data on the Web and doing things with it.
Favourite LOD (Linked Open Data) app?
That is a good question. Because unfortunately there are too many yet. That said, I will do a shameless plug too. A couple of years ago, I think it was 2012, actually my lab was looking into how can we get more visibility and linked data worlds? And so we started brainstorming about a nice demo with which to show the power of Linked Data. And then the Kevin Bacon idea and came up: like you have the “six degrees of separation” theorem and just like in six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, where you have to pick a random topic and five links and ultimately end up with Kevin Bacon. So we thought: can we use Linked Data to connect to random topics?
For instance, can we make a connection between, I’m just saying, Brussels and Mickey Mouse. Well, Brussels is capital of Belgium, Belgium is next to France, France has Paris, in Paris, there’s Disney land and Disney land was created by Walt Disney. And he is also the creator of Mickey Mouse, something like that. So we would make those stories with Linked Data. And the cool thing was that we could also do it with personal data. So you could use it Facebook, although it didn’t exist back then.
And then based on your likes, and you would be connected to any topic in the world. For instance, if I were to be connected to to Mickey Mouse, we could do something: Hey, you like this band, but this band had a performance at Disney land and so on, so forth. These things were quite interesting.
The cool thing was that we didn’t have to just show Linked Data, we had to show interesting Linked Data. Because otherwise you’d have stories like: well, you like Ice cream-> Ice cream is made in the world-> and Mickey Mouse is also made in the world, something like that. Finding interesting link data was the cool thing about that application.
Favourite paradox in tech [e.g. “designing” serendipity]?
“Designing” serendipity is my favourite.
You put that in quotes. Actually, you have to expect the unexpected, you have to foresee the unforeseen. When building stuff don’t just think about yourself and your own world and your own use case, think about how others can use this in ways that you did not in-depth. That creates a certain serendipity that’s really really beautiful and we see a lot actually on the Web.
With that beauty our Dialogue ends. Stay tuned for more in-depth conversations under this category and don’t forget to watch Ruben at TEDx (Why you’ll love the future web: Ruben Verborgh at TEDxGhent) :)