Wednesday 30 January 2019

The Semantic Web

Back in 2015, I wrote my first blog post about the Semantic Web. It is a little bit long, but I recommend that you read it...but not necessarily before you read this one. 

Today, I am going to spend more effort to guide you towards sparking your interest in learning more about the Semantic Web.


The simplest answer I can give is, the Semantic Web is the mature form of today's World Wide Web
The Web is evolving slowly and steadily as certain owners of websites are using Semantic Web technologies to make their web pages "smarter". One big example is Google. Google uses a lot of linked data to build their famous Knowledge Graph
But regular people use these technologies as well. It is as simple as adding semantic mark-up to your website's content, that transforms a few of the information on your page from a string of letters that only human beings that read your language can understand, into links (URIs) that can be traced by a computer/device back to their meanings. More on this later.  

The Semantic Web is simply a world wide web that is rich in Linked Data. When you link data items (or things) together, you make it easy for computers and other devices to be able to find things through other things they had previously found. More interesting stuff happens when the links that connect those things themselves carry some meaningful data for the devices/computers to "learn". These new kinds of links are known as "properties", and they probably are the most ingenious aspect of the Semantic Web.


Tim Berners-Lee. The inventor of the World Wide Web (Not the internet). Like I said already, the Semantic Web will be the mature form of the World Wide Web that was invented by TBL. Here is a TED video where the man himself introduces the concept to an eager audience. That video is REALLY worth watching especially the first 4 minutes. 

And now, even though it was invented by TBL, I must mention that one very Key figure of great stature in the story of the Semantic Web, is our very own brother of Nigerian decent. Kingsley Uyi Idehen - the Founder and CEO of OpenLink Software, which has been instrumental in many of the most important Linked Data projects in the world. 

I was fortunate to connect with Kingsley on Google Plus, and he was generous enough to spend time teaching me a lot about the Semantic Web, and keeping on track as to what is important and what is not. 
Tim Berners-Lee is the inventor of the World Wide Web. And he is a strong driving force in the development and adoption of Semantic Web standards, convincing governments and the corporate sector to get onboard.


Before, devices (laptops, smartphones, watches, etc) merely display data (and information) for our consumption.
These days however, devices are increasingly becoming primary consumers of this data themselves. They are able to more-or-less understand the data that they are displaying to you. 
If they understand the data themselves, they can do many dynamic and meaningful things with that data, beyond just merely displaying it to you.

This is the interesting goal of the Semantic Web.
One of the greatest minds in this area, Kingsley Uyi Idehen of Open Link Software (google him), describes this goal as,  "....
ultimately about moving literacy to the digital realm, above all else

Please, try to wrap your head around that for a minute.
No. Please take at least 5 minutes to really think about it.

The point of linked data is to help computers and other devices to, not only READ, but also to, understand.
I mean something that can be comparable to human understanding. 

Devices cannot understand what we write today because the words you type on a page on your blog are merely a string of characters to them. "Chioma is the fastest female sprinter in Lagos" is no more meaningful than "5Fthyt Gh4&ff KOyyy %u 5fff5 uT$4f" to a web browser or any other electronic device without an expensive Natural Language Processing program operating within it. They cannot tell that there is a unique person "Chioma" and a major city "Lagos" in that sentence. After all there are many Chioma's on the internet. And there are even streets and boats in Portugal named Lagos. 

So a web of meaning matters greatly.

If I told you that I was a Chelsea fan, you immediately know that I mean this:
But what is stopping an HTTP: Web browser, if it could think,  from thinking you meant a product like this one made in the city of Chelsea, Massachusetts:

So what is desirable in a web of meaning is that digital devices begin to understand the things that we say and the things that we mean when we say them. Google has done a pretty decent job of this up until now thanks to their famous Google Knowledge Graph that I mentioned earlier. 


This is the most crucial part of what we are doing in Digital Africa.
We are trying to encourage you to want to know how things work so that we can find a way to use technology to solve our problems within the continent, and achieve our respective desired goals.
We ultimately want to place ourselves (hoping you join us) in a position where we can clearly see future big opportunities before others do, on our continent, and indeed the rest of the world. 

The only way to seize these opportunities would be for us to move really fast. 
Learn quickly. But be thorough with all you learn. 

Today, I work for a company that I really love. I was able to get a job with Tesla because I used my skills as a Google Power User to dig up very advanced information and knowledge about Tesla and about SolarCity all the way from when I was living in Nigeria. I was actively consuming information that the majority of so-called "analysts" in the US today, who give "expert" commentary on Tesla and on the solar industry, are embarrassingly clueless about! 

At the time I was doing all my research on Electric Cars & Solar, I did not know that I would be moving to the US one day. So I wasn't learning it with any plan to work for the company. I just wanted to learn about it because I saw it as a very remarkable company with an incredible Mission, and I believed that it was a vision that would have a massive impact on the world and on Nigeria someday. And things have now turned out better than I was originally hoping. 

It turns out today, that all that knowledge that I gathered over the years, helped me to crush my interview when I got to California and applied to work for Tesla. 
My knowledge of the industry still helps me to shine every time I talk to clients and people within the company today.

So knowing the way things work matters a great deal: Whether it is knowing a great deal about a company's mission, it's products, and it's methods before joining that company; Or whether it is having a lot of knowledge about a certain technology of the future, well before that technology becomes ubiquitous and impacting to millions of people. A technology like Linked Data.

This is why I am convinced that paying acute attention to the Semantic Web NOW and NOT LATER, will be thoroughly rewarding to you in the next few  years.
This keen attentiveness to the uncommon details of the subject is what will set you apart as the world grows further into a Knowledge Economy. 


How does the World Wide Web already work?
Well, the simple answer is H T T P.

Yes! That "https://" or "http://" that you always see at the top of the address bar on your phone or laptop's browser.
You can say http is like a vehicle that travels to the websites you are trying to get information from. Http uses your web browser (chrome, internet explorer or opera mini) to collect this information from a server, and then comes back to serve you this information. Take note, the information can be anything from a blog article, to a Facebook photo, a music video on Youtube, or even a game. 

The problem is that your device doesn't understand what it is serving you. You can only use that device (laptop, smartphone with http-enabled browser) to access that vehicle (http) that speeds across the internet, being driven by your request, to help you obtain service from a server. 

But now, imagine if your device can be programmed to LEARN what is the information that the vehicle is carrying. And not just to know the information there in, but to also understand the meaning.  Imagine if the device can drive the vehicle (the HTTP vehicle mentioned earlier) for you if you needed it to?  

And this doesn't have to be a smartphone or laptop web browser. It can be any kind of device that can use that "HTTP vehicle" in itself. It can be Amazon Echo, Google Assistant or even an electric car. 
Any of this things can run a Reasoner (a software that is made to infer meanings from browsing through linked data). 

Think of a scenario where such reasoning software from all sorts of devices roam from page to page on the Semantic Web, learning about things, and can readily carry out more sophisticated tasks on those things for you at your command. 

It won't be easy to see a really clear picture of that right now, until the Semantic Web fully matures, and more sophisticated reasoning software are developed.
A web page from a news article from Punch may contain a link to another news article from This Day. But in the normal world wide web, that link is merely a oneway bridge that can take you or a computer from one article to another article. The link has no meaning except that it is a link.

However, in the Semantic Web, you can have data items (or resources) within a web page that link to other resources (either within the same web page or in another web page on the Web). But the most ingenious thing about the Semantic Web is that the link between these two resources that holds all of the magic. 

e.g. You may have a data item UdMax that links to another item called "RealEstateAgent", by a link that has the property "typeOf". 
Now if you were a student of the Semantic Web, by reading that code, you can immediately tell that it means that UdMax is a Type Of Real Estate Agent. But now, because of that typeOf link, even machines also understand this as well now.
They also understand that UdMax is in the same class as all other resources that link to that same RealEstateAgent resource using the "typeOf" link. 

But it gets even more delicious than that, but I won't go into all the interesting things that you can extend typeOf to. 

Another example is in fashion:
Say for example you were managing the website of The House of Deola Sagoe. 
You could actually have the web page that showcases her "Komole" fashion line not only describing that fashion line using semantic linked data, but you can also link that Komole to Deola Sagoe's wikidata item in Wikipedia ( Then you link it with the "offeredBy" property in
What this does is taht it tells computers and other devices that Komole fashion collections are offered by Deola Sagoe (fashion designer) head of The House Of Deola Sagoe. 
The computers will link all of these together, and they understand that Komole is something in similar category to fashion collections offered by the likes Gianni Versace, Gucci and Luis Vuitton. 
So if someone like the Duchess of Sussex was visiting Nigeria in year 2025, her AI personal assistant may recommend that she check out Komole fashion articles.

Or something like that sha...... ;-)


But like I always warn my fellow social scientists coming into the internet technology world, I must again warn that the best way to learn about a new technology is to always start with learning the present and past limitations of that technology. 

Don't be like lay people who love to tell each other that the Israeli secret service knows EVERYTHING about anyone entering Israel, and that they have a recorded video of everywhere they went to and everything they did, and recorded sound of every conversation with everyone they talked to, while they were in Israel.
I mean this is just plain ridiculous.

Technology is not magic. Eventhough sometimes it may look magical. 

The Semantic Web has a lot of limitations. A lot of hurdles need to be overcome for it to fully mature and for us to start seeing the magical things we expect from it.

It is when you learn of these limitations and the things that are needed to tackle these limitations that you will be well suited for the opportunities that come with whichever technology in the future.



As African countries develop, and our rulers finally begin to "lead", we expect that technological advancement will be a major aspiration for most Africans. I expect that African countries, states and cities would follow the example of European and American govts who publish open linked data for the public, promoting accountability, transparency and increased access to information.

As Africans publish linked data, the kinds of things that software reasoners will be able to do with all the data available on the Web will become increasingly more interesting and exciting. Important new entrepreneurial ideas would spring up as a result. Many existing business models would receive a massive boost (e.g. self-driving cars and navigation).

But the most important thing I can think of for now is that, in the Semantic Web era, many different business applications will be connectable to other business applications to unlock fantastic growth opportunities. This is inevitable, as connecting "things" through logical relationships is the very essence of Linked Data. 

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