On the quest of explaining Semantic Web

A few weeks ago I did the (for me) so far most successful presentation about semantic web. And guess what: it worked so well because I almost did not mention it in the presentation.

An old friend of mine asked me to present the idea of semantic web to the company she is working for in an event they call Puzzle Lunch. The idea is to present a technology to everyone interested in the company and have lunch after that. The time limit was one hour, which I considered as practically impossible. I did quite a lot of talks about it in the past, both to programmers and to non-technical people and I always found it easier to explain it to someone with little or no technical background. This way I could skip the time-consuming details of RDF and related standards.

Inspired by a presentation from Bart and a long discussion with Christian the night before I decided to drop theĀ  technical aspect completely and just try to explain how we and others use the technology. In the train to Bern I was not so sure anymore if this was really the way to go, but in the end I decided to give it a try. I went there only with an improvised spreadsheet on which I explain the issues with list and table-like structures. I did not had a single slide prepared.

After a warm welcome the room was filled with quite a lot of people, most of them as expected programmers and a few customers from Puzzle. I started my presentation and explained the issues with implicit knowledge we find everywhere where we use list- or table-like structures, like Excel files or databases. I showed them how much information gets lost that way and talked about why we need unique identifiers not just for the information itself but also for the headings, the annotations, the relationships between entries in tables. Finally I showed them how this implicit knowledge can be visualized in a graph, which I explained by very simple examples on the whiteboard.

I already talked longer than planned for this part so I switched to examples, stories from our customers and use cases I found on semanticweb.com or heard at SemTech. Every example I explained based on three great points Christian and I figured out the night before:

  • dissolve existing data silos
  • make implicit (or tacit) knowledge explicit available
  • make it possible to store any relationship without the need of designing an appropriate data model upfront

The most important key message was however that semantic web does not offer entirely new things, but it allows us to solve common problems more quickly and, hence, at lower costs.

Surely I did briefly mention RDF as the data model, I did talk about vocabularies and how you describe them in so called ontologies but I did not waste more time on it than absolutely necessary. Later we briefly talked about why we have to bring the benefits of the flexible data model in the backend to the user interface, which is exactly what we are working on at netlabs.org.

In the end I showed a few examples of our user interface technology and briefly talked about Linked Open Data and its potential. Surely I did talk a bit longer than an hour and when I decided to stop, I knew that I didn’t talk about quite a lot of things which I find tremendously exciting about the semantic web.

The feedback was just great. We had great discussions at lunch, later I got various text messages and emails from Puzzle employees and customers which told me the loved the idea of the semantic web and the way I presented it. They were sparkling with ideas of how they could use it in their own company or at customers and some of them want to read into the technology and get their hands dirty.

But there was one ultimate remark which proved to me that presenting semantic web without lot’s of technical details is definitely the way to go: At lunch they realized that someone else presented RDF a few years back but back then no one understood what it could be used for. So no matter to whom you are explaining the semantic web: rather show how it can solve existing problems, but don’t waste time on the technology itself. And by the way: me and my guys at netlabs.org would be more than happy to explain it to you as well :)