Friday, 25 November 2011

The journey into Web 3.0....

I'd always read of the semantic web as Web 2.0.  So it was a surprise to come across the concept of Web 3.0.  Actually, the term 'semantic web' has been bandied around for a long time.  What it actually is is up for debate.  The easiest way to think about it is in terms of Web 1.0 = read only, Web 2.0 = read/write, and Web3.0 = read/write/execute.

What I take from the concept of Web 3.0 is the idea of making machines smarter, more 'intuitive'.  Of course, since computers are inherently stupid, this involves us giving the means with which to become smarter and more intuitive.  Like giving them the semantics to work with, in order to retrieve data more effectively.  In short, data is not only machine readable, but machine understandable.

This is all technically theory, since the semantic web doesn't really exist - yet.  We still don't really have a system whereby computers can build programmes, websites, mashups, what have you, in an intelligent and 'intuitive' way according to our needs.  But the potential is there, with tools like XML and RDF.  These involve the creation of RDF triples, taxonomies, and ontologies.  What the hell, you may ask?  And I may well agree with you.  How I've come to understand it is that these are essentially metadata applied to information in order to relate those pieces of information together in a semantic way.  These relationships between data or pieces of information make it easier to retrieve them, because they are now given a context within a larger whole.

This does have its parallels with Web 1.0.  RDF Schemas (taxonomies expressed as groups of RDF triples) have a certain similarity to the concept of relational databases.  RDF schema 'nodes' can be equated to the primary key in relational databases.  In fact, the whole idea of RDF schemas can get a little confusing, so some of us found it easier to think of it in terms of a web-based relational database.

Relational database <-> RDF schema
The idea behind this is essentially to create relational databases on the net, but to link them semantically to one another, effectively creating the ability to find correlations between vast amounts of data that would otherwise be remote and essentially invisible.  The advantage is that we can get the accuracy of data retrieval results on the Web.  To take the diagram's example; we have a database of student's GCSE results.  If we pair this up with a demographic database, and apply an ontology to them (thereby creating rules of inference), we can discover correlations between GCSE results and student demographics.

The potential to make even more advanced and relevant mashups is the huge advantage of this technology.  However, the problem is that it requires quite a bit of skill and time investment in order to create these schemas, taxonomies and ontologies.  Most people would be satisfied with what they can create via Web 2.0 technologies - with social networking, blogging and mashups.  The potential to make faulty schemas is also a problem - as with a database, any error in organising the information, or in the data retrieval process will mean a complete inability to access data.

But the main problem I see is that these schemas are only really applicable to certain domains, such as librarianship, archiving, biomedics, statistics, and other similar fields.  For the regular web user, there are no particular benefits to applying an RDF schema to, say, your Facebook page - but it would probably be useful to Mark Zuckerberg.

The semantic web is probably more useful in the organisation of information on the web, and harnessing it.  But it would probably be largely invisible and irrelevant to the legions of casual web users out there.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Web on the Move, Part 2

Taking what we had learned from Monday's lesson, our computer lab exercise asked us to design a mobile device app that fulfils our needs as City students.  There was a lot of discussion and good ideas flying around; a lot of looking at our own smartphones and seeing how they presented their apps and such.  There was also much checking of City's Moodle system and its many flaws and drawbacks.

I'd initially been a bit worried about this exercise, not knowing exactly what I could bring to it; but the conversation and ideas were so stimulating, I soon became very excited about designing my own app.  As soon as I got home, I started making a mockup of a City Moodle app on Photoshop.

A City Moodle app mockup.  Does not discriminate between smartphones (but only because I don't actually have an iPhone).

  • Mail - Instant access to your City email account.
  • Discussion - Feed of the latest posts on the Moodle discussion boards with the option of instant posting/replying.
  • Compass - GPS or wi-fi based showing your campus location.  It allows you to key in your classes and get room directions.
  • Bluetooth - Allows you to instantly download lecture notes and slides so that you can read them on the move.
  • Scanner - Liam's brilliant idea!  See a book in the bookshop, and scan the barcode to check its availability at City's library.
  • Library - Access to your library account and the library catalogue; allows you to reserve and renew books whilst on the move.
On top of this there is a drop-down menu which allows you to access your course details whenever you want.  The drop-down menu unfolds over the length of the screen, and folds when you touch outside the body of the menu.  I'm sure there's a lot more that could be integrated into this.  I think it would be a great idea to have such an app for City students; the exercise made me realise just how useful it could really be.

The Web on the Move, Part 1

So I guess this lesson succeeded in that it made me upgrade my ancient (i.e. 2 year old) phone and get a new touch-screen smartphone!  So unfair that I have to wait hours for it to charge before I use it! T_T

Frankly, I was surprised I managed to hold out for so long.  Smartphones are now pretty ubiquitous, and being a bit of a gadget fan, the temptation was certainly there to capitulate to the web as mobile platform.  So why are smartphones so popular?

Having a computer in your pocket whilst on the move is certainly a big pro.  The main pro of mobile devices is that they are context aware.  The know where they are, and can provide lots of information about their location, e.g. in-built GPS system.  The cons are obviously the limited screen and keyboard size (not so much of a problem for someone with tiny hands like me, and I like bite-sized phones, but hey...).  Other cons like limited connectivity and battery life are Moore's Law problems, and will probably get solved if you sit around for another couple of years (which is what I ended up doing before I got my new phone, lol!).

The main problem with mobile devices is that they don't really fulfil user's information needs.  It is the current technology that defines our needs.  For example, with my old phone, I knew there was no point in trying to connect to City's Moodle system, because my phone simply could not handle it.  It would have been mighty useful to have access to Moodle like I would have had on a Smartphone, but it was impossible and so I would just wait until I had access to my laptop.

Looking at it from another angle, technology can also provide users with things they never knew they wanted.  Just now I saw an advert for the new iPhone 4S, with voice control technology.  Want to know if you need an umbrella when you go out tonight?  Just ask your phone.  It'll give you an immediate answer.  But who would have thought you'd even want this before it became reality?

My laptop has in-built voice recognition technology.  Wow, I thought!  I can really do with this.  After setting it up and using it for a day to get it to learn my speech patterns, guess what - I never used it again.  Maybe I didn't need it so much after all.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Personalisation and increased functionality on Web 2.0

A couple of weeks back we discussed the idea of the internet as a platform being one of the defining features of Web 2.0.  This week we learned more about how the ‘internet as platform’ functions – namely through the use of web services and API’s.

Web services allow the personalisation of information that is passed through the web to the user.  Essentially it is ‘middleware’, re-processing machine-readable data from the server in order to present it in a form that is uniquely tailored to the client.  As the client, we neither have to see nor understand how that data is re-processed in order to gain access to it.  It is delivered to us in a simple and convenient form by the web service without needing any significant programming or computing knowledge on our part.

For example, I  have 2 laptops – one for home use and one for Uni work.  How can I have access to my web browsing data from just one machine when I am away from the other?  Google allows me to sync my browser data via my Google account; so when I use the Chrome browser from anywhere, I still have access to my bookmarks, passwords, usernames and other saved data.

XML is the ‘language’ of web services, similar to HTML yet much more flexible.  Learning to write HTML back in the late 90’s, I discovered that it was basically rigid – HTML ‘tags’ or commands are prescribed and can only be read by certain programs.  XML is similar in that it uses such tags and commands, but these can be created by the user and provide unseen, machine-readable metadata.  It is also readable by a wide number of programs.  For example, object data for the game the Sims is encoded in XML, and can be manually manipulated in order to create custom content.

Nowadays, most programming is done through the use of API’s (Application Programming Interfaces), which essentially hides complex internal structures from the user of the API, thus making it more user-friendly.  API’s can be used by other programmers and developers to create their own widgets, gadgets, apps and countless other useful little gizmos which can personalise your data.  Hence we get Twitter feed apps for our iPhones and Google Map sat nav on our tablets. 

In the ‘real world’, API’s have really brought out the functionality of my website.  I am able to embed a slideshow of all my creations onto my website, so users can immediately see what I have to offer.  I also have a Revolver Maps gadget embedded into my page, so that I can keep track of where my visitors come from, and who is currently browsing my site.  I also have a link to an RSS feed, and a Google +1 gadget added so that people can recommend and keep up to date with my site.  The power of the API and the web service lies in the fact that they are so accessible, so flexible, and able to tailor information to both you and your audience.  Ten years ago, setting up a sophisticated visitor counter to your website would’ve probably required some technical know-how.  Nowadays, thanks to API’s, it’s all there at the click of a button.