What is the semantic web?

Combining and presenting information is a key aspect of campaigning, but your computer has no way of 'knowing' what kind of information it is dealing with. Tom Allen explains how common standards for categorising information online could revolutionise the way campaigners can engage with the issues they care about.

The Semantic Web, also known as Web 3.0, comes from Tim Berners-Lee's original vision for the Web as a platform to facilitate simple exchange of data. A simple way to understand what it is and what it might mean for us as e-campaigners is to compare it to the W3C standards for XHTML and CSS.

Basically it is an agreed set of shared standards to make the content of the web understandable and accessible to computers/machines. In this way, it's similar to how we create meta data to define keywords and descriptions of our websites.

There are a number of flavours of the semantic web already being put into practice, so it is important that we all continue to monitor and discuss progress of the various types so we're well situated to influence their development.

Lets look at an example to make this less abstract. The 'flavour' I'm most familiar with is Microformats.

So here's a practical example of an event you want to post on your site:

The <em>July Digital Charities meetup</em> will be on 7th July from
4 -
6pm at
<a href="http://www.unicef.org.uk" title="UNICEF">UNICEF</a>
(<a href="http://digitalcharities.org/2010/06/july-digital-charities-meetup/">More on Digital Charities site</a>)

If it was microformatted so it could be read by aggregation tools, it would look like this - additional code in italics:

<p class="vevent">
The <em class="summary">July Digital Charities meetup</em> will be on 7th July from
<abbr class="dtstart" title="2010-07-07T16:00:00">4</abbr> -
<abbr class="dtend" title="2010-07-07T18:00:00">6</abbr>pm at
<a href="http://http://www.unicef.org.uk" title="UNICEF" class="location">UNICEF</a>
(<a href="http://digitalcharities.org/2010/06/july-digital-charities-meetup/" class="url">More on Digital Charities site</a>)

Of course, both would display as:

"The July Digital Charities meetup will be on 7th July from - pm at UNICEF (More on Digital Charities site)"

The second version however would allow you to automatically enter that event into your calendar with just a couple of clicks. Currently you need to install a microformat reader plugin to do this (see below), and certain plugins support only some microformats inevitably, but there have been strong indications that future iterations of Firefox & Internet Explorer will include native support for microformats, so users won't have to download additional plugins, or know how this extra functionality works.

Here are some of the Firefox microformat plugins:

  • Operator - Handles most microformats
  • Google Maps for Microformats - Reads microformatted 'geo' codes, then finds the location on Google Maps
  • Tails Export - Reads events (hcalendar), business cards (vcard) and locations (geo), but the information display is pretty awful

Microformats just happened to be my introduction to semantic web, so the easiest to use to explain the principles. If Rolf were writing this, you'd have got some beautiful examples of RDF semantic code by now, but I don't want to add another layer to what is supposed to be an introduction to the concepts. If you're interested there's plenty to find Googling microformats and RDF, and this Semantic Focus article might help to compare the two.

What are the implications for e-campaigning?

I'm glad you asked.

Imagine it's a few years in the future, and you're passionate about a specific issue, region, or just have a free weekend coming up and want to take part in a bit of activism. You go to your browser which now has a semantic web aggregator built into it by default, and simply choose the appropriate parameters and you've got all the information, and links to, our web campaigns on the issue / region you're interested in instantly. This is going to change the environment we're working in fairly significantly. Obviously, there is still going to be an audience for the supporter journeys we currently develop, but we need to be aware of, and tailoring our content for this next step on web.

Better still, imagine you're a journalist / potential donor / decision-maker keen to know which organisations are working on certain issues, or in certain areas of the globe. Similarly our semantic information will be instantly presented to these audiences if they choose to use the available tools.

Next steps

As Rolf was explaining at ECF10, for the semantic web to work, everyone needs to be using the same syntax for adding this additional meaning to sites. Collectively we are probably the largest group of webbies with a vested interest in ensuring a shared syntax that works well for our campaigns. If we don't engage with the process at this stage, we are liable to be having to bend another agreed syntactic set for our purposes. The syntax that would be appropriate for news or selling products is not going to fit with how we want to present our campaigns, events and donor opportunities. I suggest we initiate discussions on our required parameters now, before all the agreements are made and there isn't so much flexibility.

Who's with me?!


Tom Allen is International Web Manager and eComms Editor at ActionAid.

by Tom Allen published Jul 13, 2010,
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