Despite the recession, tube strikes, and snow, there was a fine collection of speakers, exhibitors, and delegates at a smaller than usual Online Information Conference and Exhibition this year.

Librarians seem to be getting heavily into Linked Data, while the corporate sector is still mainly concerned with business intelligence and search.

On day one I enjoyed the practical explanations of how Linked Data principles have been made to work at The Guardian, The Press Association, the Dutch Parliament, and the ALISS health project in Scotland.

Linked Data tags are a form of metadata that can be used to automatically generate content aggregations for web pages. This means that not only can you re-use your own content, increasing its lifespan, but you can gather cheap content that is openly available online. This is very familiar territory to me, as we used to build products in the same way back in the 90s, the difference being that we didn’t have much of an external web to link to back then. In the meantime, using a linkable, interoperbale format for your tags has very many benefits, and whether your focus is primarily for content within or beyond a firewall, the arguments for using standards that have the potential to link to the wider world seem very compelling. I can’t see any logical reasons not to standardise the format your metadata is held in (technical and practical issues are another matter), although standardising the semantic content of the metadata is a far more difficult problem.

It was reassuring to hear that everyone else is struggling with the problems of who mints IDs and URIs, who settles arguments about what exactly the IDs refer to – especially across domains – and who resolves and manages mappings. Such issues are difficult to resolve within a firewall, out there on the Web they become vast. The W3C is starting to work on provenance standards (the parametadata or meta-metadata), a pet worry of mine, because I am certain we need to get that layer of semantic information into our tags as soon as possible if we are going to be able to advance the semantic web beyond crunching databases together.

In the meantime, Linked Data is working very well especially for mashups and information visualisations. I particularly liked the Dutch Parliament’s “Attaquograms” – a diagram showing how often MPs were interrupted in debates and how much they interrupted others, although it doesn’t appear to have changed their behaviour yet. I also enjoyed The Guardian’s “league tables” of MPs’ performance. When MPs protested that such analyses ignored qualitative issues, The Guardian pointed out that if MPs advocate such data crunching as a way to judge schools and hospitals, then it must be good enough to apply to MPs themselves.

Andy Hyde from the ALISS project is working on ways to use Linked Data to help people manage their health, especially for patients with long term conditions such as diabetes. He stressed the importance of involving the users in any information project and addressing them on their terms, stating “The most collaborative tool we have is the cup of tea”.

My only concern about using Linked Data to pull in Wikipedia content, is whether the audience will start recognising it. If every website that mentions a topic has the same Wikipedia content attached to it, won’t people get bored? Perhaps there are just so many people out there contributing, so many varieties of alogrithmic aggregations, and so much content to read, it will never happen!

There is a related Guardian technology blog post.

I will post summaries of days two and three shortly.