Eleemosynary RDF

[14 July 2008]

I spent last week in meetings with (among others) a number of enthusiastic proponents of RDF. The meetings were for the most part quite useful and constructive: we spent a lot of time trying to come to grips with the fact that W3C is investing a lot of time and effort in what look like parallel and competing stacks for RDF and XML, and trying to find our way to a simple story about how the two relate. And as one colleague said: no one was trying to “win”, everyone was just trying to understand and solve the problem.

My evil twin Enrique elbowed me in the ribs when he heard this, and suggested that this charitable generalization had some exceptions. You have to make some allowances for Enrique: re-encountering the rhetoric of RDF advocates at close range had put him in a bad mood at what he regards as the tone-deaf style of some arguments for using RDF. A full catalogue would take a long time (and would only lead to bad feeling), but during a lull in the meeting, Enrique whispered to me “Listen! If you listen carefully to the rhetoric, what you hear is that none of these RDF peeople believe in their hearts that using RDF is useful for the person or institution who actually creates and maintains the data! It’s all about making things easy for other people, about you eating the vegetables so I can eat dessert, about taking one for the team. I bet the records of Nurmengard were kept in RDF!” “Hush!” I said. “People will hear you.” But I have to admit, he had a point.

You should use RDF, the argument frequently goes, because if you do, then we can reuse your data much more conveniently.

When one of the meetings was considering a possible list of speaking points, I suggested (to keep Enrique quiet) that the point about using RDF so that other people could reuse the data more easily might perhaps be recast to suggest that using RDF could help the creators of the data better achieve their own goals. Sometimes the primary goal of data collection to make the data available for others to use. But often, in the real world, those who collect data do so primarily for their own purposes, and asking them to incur a cost in order that others may benefit seems to require a higher level of altruism than commercial, educational, or governmental institutions always exhibit.

No, a colleague replied emphatically, the point of the semantic web is that you incur costs now so that others can benefit later.

After several days, I’m still uncertain whether he was indulging in sarcasm, irony, or persiflage by parodying my paraphrase of the draft speaking point, or whether he was stone cold serious. At the break, Enrique went out and painted “For the greater good” over the entrance to the building where the meeting was being held, and wrote “Welcome to Nurmengard” on the whiteboard, but thankfully someone erased it before the meeting resumed.

I was reminded of something I once heard Jean Paoli say about persuading people to try a new technology. Using an unfamiliar technology requires an investment of effort, and the user you are trying to persuade needs to see that investment paid back very quickly. If someone puts five cents of effort in, Jean said, they want to see a nickel paid back in return, and preferably right away.

Note: Enrique reminds me that not everyone who reads English can keep the colloquial terms for American coins straight. A “nickel” is a coin worth five cents. (So Jean Paoli was saying people want to break even right away on their effort, not that they want to show a profit.) Oh, and Nurmengard is the prison built by the dark wizard Grindelwald to house his opponents; it had “For the greater good” carved over its entrance. (Enrique says that that is overkill: there isn’t any adult left who hasn’t read the Harry Potter books, so that gloss is unnecessary.)

One of the reasons I found Tom Passin’s talk about his use of RDF persuasive and interesting, last August in Montreal, was that he suggested plausibly that in the situation he described, using RDF might have short-term benefits, not just pie in the sky by and by. I think I’m as interested in long-term benefits as the next person. But a technology seems likely to achieve better uptake if using it brings some benefit to those who use it, independent of the network effect. Why do so many proponents of RDF behave as though they can’t actually think of any benefit of RDF, except the network effect?

One thought on “Eleemosynary RDF

  1. I think your colleague was probably stone cold sober. Because of the flexibility of RDF/XML, it’s much easier to create and publish RDF than it is to locate and interpret it. Reuters Health, when I was working there, chose to publish its metadata as RDF because it cost essentially nothing to do so: they wanted to publish the metadata anyhow, and using RDF/XML format embedded in the articles was easier than inventing their own format for it, and no easier or harder to generate programmatically. We didn’t have any particular need to read RDF, so its complexities didn’t cost us anything.

    Analogous enterprises are publishing open-source software and Ecclesiastes’ remark about casting your bread upon the waters and finding it after many days.

    (I have, indeed, read all seven Potter books, but I had forgotten Nurmengard and had to look it up. The name sounds to me like a hybrid of Nuremberg and Isengard.)

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