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Apologies for the length - there’s been a lot to think about the last few days. This is an initial, provisional attempt to formalize some thoughts that came out of #lodlamto

At the end of an interesting workshop on SPARQL at the #lodlamto conference on Thursday, I overheard two software developers talking about how unintuitive SPARQL was to people with SQL experience (because SPARQL queries and SQL queries are “false friends”). The two developers came to the conclusion that SPARQL could safely be ignored because “no one industry is using it”. I’ve come across this idea before – mostly from non library-technology people who hear about linked data technologies from someone in the library world. Linked data seems overengineered, counterintuitive, and too heavy for most purposes. Now, most of us know about non-library-specific linked data applications (like Google’s knowledge graph, for example), but I got to wondering whether it was true that linked data was not being used in applications outside the library world. I put the question out on Twitter, and followed it up with the “is it us?” question: are library technologists/metadata people obsessed with linked data even though it’s not a widely used concept/technology, or are other technology areas missing what seems obvious to us?

A few people chimed in with, I think, enough examples of linked data use outside libraries and search engines to prove that linked data is being adopted where it makes sense. But that’s an important distinction: it seems clear after looking at the examples, that linked data satisfies a particular data need, which is not a requirement for many technology projects. And I think this cleared up for more (at least to a certain extent) the boundaries of linked data as an approach to a problem. Libraries, search engines, and social networks all have problems that can be solved by linked data, but not all problems are best approached from a linked data perspective.

Ron Houk pointed out the Gnome project is using linked data and SPARQL at least in some parts of its workflow. Mark Matienzo suggested biomedical informatics, Steven Folsom pointed me to an ISWC2015 keynote on “Semantics and Inference Processing in Finance” and then what might be the most intriguing example of linked data use outside of libraries, the linking of data to track those involved in human trafficking. More technical information on the DIG project can be found here.

Exploration in addition to Answers

What I think is really interesting about all these examples, and what connects to recent developments in the field of my day job (library discovery systems) is that a graph is not meant to be simply an aggregate of knowledge presented statically, it’s essentially meant to be explored. In the discovery world, this idea takes the form of user expectations moving from searching for and finding an item, to users finding a set of results and exploring and doing more different kinds of things with the results. In a sense, we’re talking about adding more research and exploration to our systems, rather than just providing an interface to a surrogate record. Karen Coyle has talked about this, most recently in her SWIB15 talk, Mistakes Have Been Made. One thing that the examples above makes clear is that the point of linked data is not simply displaying some representation of the linked datasets, but providing a data structure that allows for exploration and discovery without requiring exploration and discovery connections to be made explicitly by human beings (which is the case, for example, in the authority structures of a library catalogue).

At #lodlamto a lot of the benefit of linked data was exposed through the kind of research question not easily answered by current relational databases (e.g. “who was a fresco painter in Florence in 1344”, “how many churches were renovated in Germany after the Second World War”). The problem with these is not that they are more sophisticated than what we might think of as a standard SQL query, but that that they remain static: we query a graph and get back an answer (even if the answer is a set of solutions). This is obviously a use case, but it is far from the most interesting one, in my perspective.

What linked data should give us is the ability to use a single static query like those listed above as a transient point in the more fluid exploration of the data in question. This functionality is mirrored in the multiple patterns that can be included in a single SPARQL query. While these graph queries can give us the answers to quite complex static questions, but it also opens the way to using graph queries in a more extensible and fluid way.

So the publication or aggregation of linked data isn’t an end in itself. What is important to libraries, to social networks, or to the DIG project, is being able to start at any node or set of nodes (which is likely the result of a query) and then being able to move from node to node and graph to graph without any explicit linking by human beings, thus making the possibilities of exploration potentially unlimited, precisely because every linked data publisher can work independently, as long as the data they publish is open, and reuses existing ontologies as much as possible.

The Data Question

One important concern here is not simply that we will reproduce the existing problems libraries have in their data infrastructure in terms of siloization, non-standard practices, and unwillingness or technical inability to share, but that we will end up reproducing more subtle problems in new (and hence less detectable ways). For example, the critiques of controlled vocabularies Hope Olson performs in The Power to Name, the critique of representation in authority and other kinds of records Jordan Claire and Myron Groover spoke about at #lodlamto, and Allana Mayer wrote about in “Linked Open Data for Artistic and Cultural Resources”, and the recent debates around LCSH subject headings, all indicate problems with the existing method of creating data within particular networks of power and domination. That linked data has the capability not only of allowing subaltern voices to be heard (“anyone can say anything about any topic”) and also makes adding or modifying vocabulary terms much cheaper than it is now, does not alter the fact that, living as we are within the same networks of power and domination but now with linked data, we will have to guard against and understand how to mitigate the very real coercive force of such power when it comes to data, metadata, and vocabulary control. One argument against vocabulary and ontology work being done in isolation is the temptation to create a new vocabulary rather than reuse existing ones; another argument can be made that the isolation of vocabulary groups may have a tendency to reproduce the worldview of the smaller group, leading to the same problems we have in, for example, LCSH today.

The Interface Question

In addition to the data problem, something similar exists with respect to user interfaces. What I worry about is that one of the reasons it’s difficult for some people both inside and outside libtech to see the end result of linked data, is that our interfaces and our “understanding” of user expectations and workflows are lagging behind our data, infrastructure, and tools. If we use linked data technologies to drive a standard library OPAC interface then we are doing our users a disservice, as well as squandering the capabilities of open linked data. Another concern is that work in linked data is currently being done institution-by-institution, which involves a lot of duplication of effort, code, data, etc. Instead, we should try to come up with the relevant shared standards, tools, and techniques, to not reinvent the wheel, and to allow each institution to focus on what they do that is actually differently from all the rest, and move all of us forward together. As with vocabulary and ontology development, this requires a much closer working relationship between all institutions and organization than hitherto exists. Any initiative in Canada around linked data must be as open, transparent, and inclusive as possible.

The User Question

I’ve said before that one of the things many libraries are very bad at is requirement gathering. Recognizing that user assessment and usability testing is a subset of requirement gathering, it follows that many of us are very bad at that too. Listening to Alan Harnum talk about the immediate value to his users of the work he does, based on an actual relationship with the users in question, is extremely edifying. But Alan no longer works in libraries. There are many areas in which libraries would do well to look outside the profession for guidance, and requirement gathering/user assessment is certainly one of them.

The connection to linked data, to my mind, is that without a close relationship with the users of our tools and interfaces, it will be nearly impossible for us either to let people know about the new possibilities of a linked data infrastructure, or to understand what our users actually need and want from us, or to recognize if an when we have satisfied their needs. The end result, of course, is business as usual, and the same inadequate tools and interfaces that libraries have had to live with for a long time. Linked open data and open source software give us the ability to go beyond the limits of an outdated data model and shoddy vendor-supplied tools and interfaces. We shouldn’t squander the opportunity.

Openness, Publication and Consumption

But even a focus on building tools and interfaces may not be the best place to put our energy. We are increasingly aware that the main library interfaces are being bypassed by many users, who prefer to search for resources on the open web, then use more-or-less transparent library tools (e.g. the library proxy) to gain access to licensed resources. We ought to be taking a hard look at the time, effort, and energy we put into applications that may not even be used.

More importantly, like government organizations, libraries no longer need to have a monopoly on their applications. It is currently extremely difficulty to expose library data efficiently, either due to proprietary APIs, or data locked down either through licensing, technology, or privacy concerns. Linked open data may be the key to liberating our own data for use by other application developers. We have seen how opening up transit data encourages people to write applications more quickly and with higher quality than applications written by (or for) the transit service itself. With linked data, we can expose our data secure in the knowledge that it is immediately linkable with other data sets, built on a simple, solid data model, so that others can reuse and repurpose the data as desired.

It is always tempting to see social formations reflected in technology, to imagine that the flat structure of linked data and the AAA principle reflects a democratization of our data model and vocabularies. Perhaps that will turn out to be the case, but it is much more likely that our understanding and application of linked data principles will be less than adequate or incomplete, or that the system of domination in which we live will continue to distort our best intentions, as it always does. The problem of breaking out of our own histories, our own institutional and organizational cultures, in order to make linked data really work, not for us, but for the people and communities we serve, is a difficult one. All we can do right now is, on the one hand, attempt to broaden and deepen our knowledge and skills, continue to fight for the open (source, access, data) against closed (systems, code, minds), and keep speaking up about the ways in which our current data practices reflect oppression and inequality in our societies at large.

Much of this blog post came out of discussions at #lodlamto, held at Ryerson and York, May 12-13, 2016, and in conversation with John Fink, Ruth Collings, Myron Groover, Alan Harnum, Kim Pham, Allana Mayer, Robin Desmeules, MJ Suhonos, Tom Johnson, Gillian Byrne and Christina Harlow, for which I am grateful


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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