British gov't to invest £30 million in Semantic Web

Tim Berners-Lee will head up government-funded institute to move the Semantic Web into the business world

The British government has invested £30 million (US$45 million), in a research center to further develop Tim Berners-Lee's Semantic Web.

The center, to be called the Institute for Web Science, will be run by Berners-Lee, who formulated the basic protocols for the Web, along with University of Southampton artificial intelligence professor Nigel Shadbolt.

"This Institute will help place the UK at the cutting edge of research on the Semantic Web and other emerging web and internet technologies and ensure the Government is taking the right funding decisions to position the UK as a world leader," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a statement.

The Semantic Web is Berners-Lee's vision for how the Web should evolve beyond its origins as a worldwide repository of human-readable hyperlinked documents.

"Documents you read; data you can do all kinds of stuff with," Berners-Lee said, during a videocast hosted in February 2009 by the nonprofit TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) organization.

By using linked data, machines should be able to make inferences and reason about data found they find the Web, without human intervention, in effect turning the Web into a worldwide database.

Linked data relies on a number of still-emerging Web standards. One is RDF (the Resource Description Framework), which can link two disparate sources of data. Another is the HTTP URI (Uniform Resource Identifier), which can provide a Web address for a piece of data.

Although Berners-Lee has been championing the Semantic Web for most of the past decade, it has yet to gain serious momentum beyond a dedicated research community.

Part of the reason behind the Semantic Web's slow growth is that it is more of an abstract concept than the Web itself is, said Timothy Finin, a Semantic Web researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Whereas with the original Web, anybody with a text editor and knowledge of a few HTML commands can compose a Web page, the Semantic Web is more difficult for non-programmers to understand.

"The Semantic Web is more like a database. It took a long time for relational database technology to work itself into the lives ordinary officer workers," Finin said. The success of the Semantic Web should be evaluated along a similar timescale.

Nonetheless progress seems to be taking place, however glacially.

Linked Data, a compendium of linked data sources, has counted over 13 million triples, or RDFs that connect two different sources of data, from 200 data sources.

The British Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will supply the funding for the institute, which will be jointly based in the Universities of Oxford and Southampton. The institute will conduct research as well as look for ways to commercialize the resulting technologies, by collaborating with businesses and government agencies.

Finin said he was surprised by the big component of the funding to connect the Semantic Web with business uses. On the one hand, a commercial push may be good insofar as it introduces the Semantic Web concept to the business world. But he also expressed a worry that if the technology is not ready yet for deployment, some high-profile failures could prove detrimental to the technology's long-term viability.

The Institute for Web Science is not Berners-Lee's only new endeavor in running an Web organization. In November, Berners-Lee opened the not-for-profit World Wide Web Foundation, which seeks to broaden the range of the Web to developing nations.

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