Tag Archives: research

Dishing up Science to the Public, One Project at a Time: The Innovation Interview with PetriDish.org’s Matt Salzberg

If you had been given an opportunity to be part, in some small way, of the Apollo Missions, would you have jumped at the chance?  Personally, I’d have been over the moon!  

Unfortunately, it has been rare indeed for the general public to be invited to become involved in scientific research.  That has now changed with the launch of PetriDish.org, a website designed to crowdsource funding for scientific research projects. 

A true Innovation in funding scientific research I recently spoke to PetriDish.org founder Matt Salzberg about the passion, potential and possibilities that PetriDish encompasses.

Matt SalzbergCapital I Interview Series – Number 17

Your path to this crowdfunding project is not necessarily a standard one.  How did you get involved with PetriDish?

I used to work at the Blackstone Group doing large media and software buyouts. Then I went to Harvard Business School as I really wanted to do something more creative, more innovative with my career.  I explored a couple of different business ideas and decided that the best way for me to get a good overview of the technology world, and what’s going on in innovation, was to join a venture capital firm. So, I joined Bessemer Venture Partners, which is a big international venture capital firm.

For about a year and a half I worked on investments in mobile digital media, the internet, etc.  And one of the things I observed there was that a lot of really, really transformative businesses were being created using the internet as a reach medium to pool the collective actions of many small people to make bigger things happen.

There are a couple of examples of this.  Groupon is an innovative company that pools the collective buying power of people to get deals on stuff.  Kiva is a good example of a company that’s pooled the collective actions of small people to microfinance in the developing world.  DonorsChoose is another example of an innovative company that has pooled collective resource to help fund classroom projects.

There had been nothing really done applying this to science and research; and they’re obviously areas that dramatically need greater funding. Science and research fuel future innovation; the advancement of society is very dependent upon new discoveries and advances in a variety of fields.

This has always been a passion area of mine.  I wanted to take this business model, which I had sort of seen being applied in other areas, and use it to transform the way that research and science is funded.

Do you see it as a business model that is focussed on profits or is it something that you’re doing from a position of altruism?

It’s somewhat a combination of both.

We’re a very small, lean team at the moment, with a small group of investors. We just launched at the end of February, so we’re still putting a lot of the pieces in place to continue to scale up quite frankly.

We wanted to create a sustainable organisation and we think the for-profit model, for this particular business, is the right one because it allows us to take on investors and be self-sustainable over time.

But, the reason we’re doing it is because of the mission, which is to help accelerate the pace of innovation by making the funding process more researcher-friendly.  Right now to get funding is a very long, bureaucratic and difficult process.

Isn’t it just.

It could take as much as a year and for many reasons, including political ones, certain areas of science don’t get funded as they should.

The public is very interested in these things; there is an educational component wherein the public can get involved and learn about science and be involved in new discoveries.  We’re very mission-focused in that sense. Our goal is to really transform the way science is funded in order to accelerate innovation.  We chose the for-profit model because we think it’s the right way to bring the proper resources to bear.

We take a five percent share of the money being raised to help fund our ongoing operations.  That’s in comparison to a typical charity, which  takes 20 percent or more in terms of overhead because of all the inefficiencies that exist within a non-profit infrastructure.  We are able to attract more talent and more resources and then allow more money to go to the end researcher.

You mentioned politics and it brought to mind that there are groups within America, where you are based, that bring to bear their own beliefs, be it religious or political, in determining what research can and cannot be funded – stem cell research comes to mind.  Is that something that you are going to have to deal with?

I think that’s one of the inefficiencies that exist in the current funding process.  I think stem cell research is one example of a really interesting area of science that is underfunded because of political reasons. And that’s okay.  I think it’s totally acceptable for a government that has multiple agendas to not fund science that, for one reason or the other, they aren’t a good fit for.

That just means there is an opportunity to pick up the slack there, and we’re trying to facilitate that for the private individuals who do want to see stem cell research. Though we haven’t done a stem cell research project yet, we would.

There are other areas as well, like certain kinds of areas of social science or climate change research or ecology, which are relatively underfunded areas.  The government has, in some cases, very different priorities than individuals may or may not have depending on the project at hand.  We’re here to democratise that decision where individuals can step up and say: “I want to see this project happen.”  We provide an avenue to make that happen.

You’ve already got some extremely reputable institutions onboard, such as NASA and Stanford.  How did you involve them so early on?

We appealed directly to the researchers.  As we bring the researchers directly to donors, we don’t have to go through a process of specifically working out of partnership with the whole organisation or institution.  We post the project and if people want to connect directly with the researchers, they can; it allows us to do it much faster that way quite frankly.

What is the average age of your research participants? Are they very established researchers or are they students?

It’s a big range. We have projects from very established tenured professors who are somewhat older to graduate students, and we have everything in between. We have post-docs, young professors, full tenured professors, all across the board. And everyone comes to us for different reasons.

Some come to us because they are a grad students and they want to raise a small amount of money to do something and they don’t have access to capital.  Or  they’re a tenured professor, and already have funding, but they want to do an incremental piece of work that their current funding doesn’t allow for, or they want to share their research with the public and get the public involved.  There’s a ton of reasons why people do it.

How do you look to involve the public; for instance, would you look to connect with schools?

We’re trying to get the public involved in a variety of different ways. Right now our awareness efforts are mostly focused in the online sphere, thanks to people like you who are helping us get the word out there.

Via a variety of other channels such as the press, online social media and other kinds of marketing we’re getting the word out.  In the future we expect to be doing organisational partnerships and maybe even some partnerships with schools, as you suggest.  But right now we’re very focused on press, social media and online marketing.

And how do you envisage funders getting involved? 

There are a lot of things that the backers get. In the minimum they receive updates and information on the research over time, so they can hear about the latest discoveries and interesting things happening there.  That’s a cool experience in itself.

Then there are different rewards that they can get for backing projects at different levels.   They might get naming rights to a new species of animal… we had people do that on our site.  We had one project, which was a Harvard astronomer [Dave Kipping] doing a search for an exomoon  outside the Solar system.

The person who backed his project [Mike Dodds] at the highest level was able to name the supercomputer Dave bought.

We have another researcher who is doing research on the size and composition of algae spore structures, and if you back his project he’ll do a pressing of a dried algae specimen for you to hang up in your apartment or your house. The public gets all sorts of things.

And there is a field component too, if the public wants.  If a researcher is able to offer in-person lectures or a trip into the field with a researcher, the public can get involved that way as well.  There are a lot of different interesting things there.

I can imagine people getting very excited about things like that.  Do you think at some point it would be possible for people who are supporting PetriDish projects to nominate research projects that they think would be of interest?

Absolutely.  We’ve already had people suggest projects to us they think we should work with.  If the public has a research project they’re aware of, we’d love to hear about it; we’re very open to that.

I know that you recently launched some new projects covering such varied areas of research as the redrawing of an ancient supercontinent, decoding hyena calls in the Maasai Mara, saving Nicaragua’s last population of jaguars, and investigating estrogen levels in back yards. How do you choose which projects you get involved with?

Fundamentally we want to be a place where the public can decide what project they want to see happen.  Our fundamental philosophy is one of the democratisation.  However, we do screen projects to some extent and the projects we choose, we choose on basis of a couple of things.

First, the affiliation and quality of the researcher, they have to be from a reputable university or institution.  The second screening is on the project itself.  Is this project interesting?  Is it meaningful science?  Is it accessible to the public, so that they can understand it well enough to decide if they want to get involved?  And thirdly, we do a little bit of screen when we weed out obvious junk science: things like perpetual motion machines or paranormal activity.  But, aside from that, we really want to be a place where the public acumen finds interesting projects and decides what they want to see happen.

Do you have a pet project? Something that you personally would like to see funded?

Well, there are tons of them. I’d rather not name one of them at the risk of eliminating someone else.

You don’t want to admit to having a favourite child.

Exactly.  But in many ways some of the projects are a little bit of a reflection of the areas that I personally am very interested in.  We focus on field work, astronomy, biology, ecology, archaeology…. we have some very cool archaeology projects coming up.  We’re going to have some medical and biotech projects coming up, too.

Were you a science geek in school?

I was.  I wasn’t a scientist but I was definitely very interested in doing research.  I was an economics major and did a lot of economics research when I was an undergrad.  I’ve always been personally passionate about science.  I’m the kind of person that consumes a lot of content, I always loved reading about the latest discoveries.

Can I assume it’s not important for these projects to have the potential to become profit-making enterprises?

It’s not important at all for us.  In fact most of the projects are not going to be profit-making enterprises at all.  People back the projects so that they can be a part of the story, learn about the research and feel like they’ve helped make a new discovery happen.

So the funders are, in essence, patrons of science rather than investors.

Right.  Our backers don’t get equity in the projects.  They get an affiliation with them, a reward and a great story out of it.

Is there a minimum or maximum amount of funds that you’re generally seeking?

There’s no minimum for PetriDish projects and technically there won’t be a maximum, but we don’t allow projects that are so large that we don’t think they will get funded because of their size.

If someone came to us and said, “I need 100 million dollars to build a particle collider,” we’d say “This is not the right place to raise that money.”  Right now we’re focusing on projects that are less than $15,000.  Although if a project comes to us that  we think is so exciting, and the people behind it really understand this medium and how to raise awareness… We actually have a couple of projects we’re going to take a little bit higher.

How do you measure success for a project? 

Well, there’s a timeline.  At the outset, the project creator sets a timeframe and the goal they have to hit.  If they hit the goal by the end of the time, then the project gets funded; if they don’t, it doesn’t.  That’s a very clear metric of success.

So you see a successful endeavour as getting the project funded rather than measuring on the successful conclusion of the project itself?

Well, there are two components.  We’re trying to help these projects get funded and get off the ground.   We don’t get involved after the projects are funded in terms of doing the science.  Though, of course we would love to see the science find useful and interesting results and great discoveries.  That would certainly be another element of success… that would be wonderful!

Are you involved in building an ecosystem around the project?

Once we, hopefully, get the projects funded, we don’t step away.  We’ve built this community around the projects, where project creators can provide updates and people can learn about the results over time.

On the PetriDish website.

We stay involved, but we don’t contribute to doing the science per se.  Perhaps the community we’re building can help in some ways.

And the website enables people to keep up to date with the projects and see how they’re moving forward.


If intellectual property is created during the project, is that solely owned by the researchers, or the organisation that they’re working with?

Yes.  Backers don’t get any intellectual property. It stays with the existing structure.

And nor does PetriDish?

We don’t either.

That’s very altruistic of you. 

How would you characterise the people you think will get involved in the funding, as I think they may be somewhat different to typical investors.

The kind of people that back our projects are the ones that get excited about being part of new discoveries, that want to build relationships with researchers.  They’re your typical viewer of National Geographic or Discovery Channel and ScienceMedia.

You’re buying an experience by being a part of the research in action and in many case you’re getting tangible rewards.  Those are the kind of people who back stuff on our site.

PetriDish may also be the thing that begins to make science sexy again.  It’s been a long time since science was something that students yearned to get into.

Absolutely; that’s part of the hope.

You’re based in the US, but will you be looking at funding international project as well as US-based projects?

Yeah, absolutely.

So, researchers from around the world can connect with you?

Yes. We’ve already talked with many of them who reached out to us and we have a couple of international projects in the pipeline.

What is going to define success with regards to PetriDish for you personally?

My hope is that over time we transform the way science is funded and allow new capital to come in, which enables new discoveries to happen that otherwise wouldn’t be. We’re raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year for science and research projects.

You can learn more about, and get involved with, PetriDish.org and their many research projects via their website and follow Matt on his Twitter account.  

[Kim and Matt Skyped from their homes in Sydney and New York.]

—  MORE —

Curious about some of the researchers? Well I had an opportunity to ask a few of them some questions:

JOHN VUCETICH: Associate Professor at Michigan Technological University, John is working with the wolves of Isle Royale National Park

With the Wolves of Isle Royale in an extremely precarious position, how important is a successful Petridish round of fundraising to the your project?

The wolves of Isle Royale have never disappointed – when we observe them carefully they always teach something valuable.  In the past, these wolves and their DNA taught us about “the old grey guy,”  – a wolf that had immigrated from Canada in 1997, when it crossed an ice bridge that had formed that year.  The old grey guy – and his infusion of new genes g the population with of new genes – changed the history of wolves on Isle Royale.  The details of that finding contained insight that has been of valuable for the conservation of many endangered species.

Isle Royale wolves have survived many tough times.  And when they survive this threat it will almost certainly involve a great comeback.  And DNA from wolf scats will be the only way to know the details of that comeback.  Help us be a part of discovering what happens next to this historically and scientifically important population of wolves.

This project will either be a remarkably detailed case study of how a population goes extinct (if that’s what happens), or it will be a remarkably detailed case study of how a scientifically and culturally important wolf population comes back from the edge of extinction.”   Either outcome is scientifically important

RACHEL ARONSON:  Master’s Candidate at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington and currently a Science Writing Fellow at Washington Sea Grant

I believe that your project, ‘Climate Refugees: Don’t let their culture melt away‘ will resonate with people from all over the globe.  Along with funding, how else could people assist you with your research? Would you be interested in hearing from Climate Refugees from around the world?

I am actually in Iceland for a seminar on Inuit sovereignty, writing a paper on Inuit-led education reform as an adaptation to climate change. So I’ve been thinking a lot this week about my petridish project!

Shishmaref (Alaska) Graveyard

Climate change is a global issue that affects every living being. “Climate refugees” are just some of the first people to experience some of the worst effects of climate change, the physical loss of their home places. Through accidents of geography, economics and culture, it could really be any of us.

I think every person on the planet has a valid story to tell about the effect of climate change on their lives. I would love it if people sent me their stories (great idea!), especially since I plan to use interviewing as my primary research technique for this project. Right now, I think I’m the only Petridish researcher in the social sciences, and I really want to explore what that means over the next month of funding time– maybe I can share climate stories from people around the world!

GEOFF GILLER: Graduate student at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Funding for your project ‘Are there Estrogens in Your Backyard‘ is progressing very quickly – over half way there in only four days! – and you’re welcoming donations ranging anywhere from $1 – $1,000.  For $1,000 donors are invited to come and spend a day in the field, “flipping logs and getting muddy” with you and your team. How important is the PetriDish funding to your research?

We’re thrilled by the rapidity of our fund-raising. Part of the reason is where the donations are coming from; naturally, the first people to hear about this project are our family and friends, who are more likely to donate because they know us personally. But as the project gets re-posted and re-Tweeted and forwarded, the circle of supporters has expanded; there are several donors on the page that none of us knows. That’s one of the great things about this site: on top of raising funds, we’re also raising awareness about our topic of research. Since we’re dealing with contamination in residential areas, it’s something that is pretty universally relevant.

Taricha rivularis and researcher Max Lambert

For our project, this money is extremely important.  Water testing for chemicals like these is extremely expensive. We’ll be purchasing specialized devices that are designed to be used in situations like these, when the concentrations of the chemicals in question are quite small. The devices remain in the bodies of water for extended periods of time, which concentrates the chemicals we’re looking for and increases the likelihood of their detection. The problem with these chemicals is that they can have health impacts at very low concentrations, so we need more specialized equipment to detect them; typical water sampling might not detect them, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not present or causing health problems for humans and wildlife.

Antics with Semantics: The Innovation Interview with Semantics Pioneer, Ora Lassila

Wanting to speak to someone, both interesting and inspiring, about the Semantic Web and Innovation, Ora Lassila, an Advisory Board Member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as well as Senior Architect and Technology Strategist for Nokia‘s Location and Commerce Unit, was the obvious ‘go to guy’.

A large part of Ora’s career has been focussed on  the Semantic Web as it applies to mobile and ubiquitous computing at the Nokia Research Center (NRC), where he, among many things, authored ‘Wilbur’, the NRC’s Semantic Web toolkit.   As impressive as that is, as I did my research, finding out more about Ora, the more fascinating he, and his career, became to me.

Ora is one of the originators of the Semantic Web, having been working within the domain since 1996.  He is the co-author (with Tim Berners-Lee and James Hendler) of the, to date, most cited paper in the field, ‘The Semantic Web’.  Ora even worked on the knowledge representation system ‘SCAM’,  which, in 1999, flew on a NASA Deep Space 1 probe.

Leading up to our attendance and presentation at the Berlin Semantic Tech and Business Conference, Michael– the true ‘tech head’ of KimmiC – and I were extremely pleased that Ora, ‘the Mac Daddy’ of the Semantic Web, gave us so much of his time.   I hope you find our conversation with him as interesting as we did!

[I’ve italicised Michael’s questions to Ora so you are able to differentiate between us – though, I think it will become obvious as you read – lol!]

Ora Lassila (photo credit: Grace Lassila)

Ora Lassila: Capital I Interview Series – Number 13

Lets start out by talking about Innovation in general, and we’ll move on to the Semantic Web as we go along.   As this is the Innovation Interview Series, the ‘baseline’ question is always: how do you define Innovation?

Good question.  I think many people do not make a clear distinction between ‘innovation’ and ‘invention’.

To me, ‘innovation’ is something that not only includes some new idea or ideas, but also encompasses the deployment and adoption of such.  You can invent clever new things, but if you don’t figure out how to get people to use those new things, you have fallen short of the mark.

How essential has innovation been in your career to date; and how important do you envisage it being, going forward?

It has been important.  A big part of my professional career was spent in a corporate research lab, where inventing new things was less of a challenge than getting these inventions ‘transferred’ to those parts of the corporation that had more capability in promoting their adoption and deployment.

That said, I have learned that ‘technology transfer’ is not always about taking concrete pieces of technology, software for example, and handing them over to someone else for productization.  Sometimes the transfer is more ‘insidious’ and involves influencing how people in your organisation – or outside your organisation – think and see the world.

I would claim that some of my early work on the Semantic Web absolutely fits this definition.  So writing, publishing and talking all constitute viable means.  Also, we should not forget that people need to be inspired.  You cannot just tell them what to do, instead, they have to want to do it.

What do you think are the main barriers to the success of innovation?

I am not kidding when I say that the absolute biggest obstacle is communication.  That is, we should learn to communicate our ideas better to be able to convince people and to inspire them.  I have much to learn in this area.

Who and what inspires you? Where do you look for inspiration?

I have no good or definite answer for that.  When I was younger I was really inspired by the Spanish aviation pioneer Juan de la Cierva whose simple yet radical idea about aircraft – the ‘autogiro’ – paved the way for the adoption of helicopters.  And yet, one might argue that, in many ways helicopters are a far more complicated and complex technology than de la Cierva’s original invention.

Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu, 1st Count of De La Cierva

I am inspired by simplicity… I strive to create and design things that are simple, or at least not any more complicated than necessary.

What are, in your view, the current emerging critical trends in Innovation and technology?

I like openness, things like open-source software as well as Open Access and sharing of data as part of the scientific process.  I am hoping we see a fundamental change in how research is done.  In many ways we have progressed to a point where many problems are so complex that they are beyond a single researcher’s or research group’s capacity and capability to tackle.

Also, on the topic of openness, I like some of the recent developments in open government, e-Government, and such.

And what are some of the coolest mobile technologies you’re seeing launched? 

I am much enamoured with the idea that mobile technologies – particularly via the use of GPS, etc. – ‘ground’ many services to the physical world.  There are many uses for location information, uses that help me in my everyday life.

Furthermore, by making the mobile device better understand the current ‘context’, not only geographically but also by making use of other observations about the physical world (movement, sound, etc.), we can make applications and services better for users.

Do you think we will have a ‘meshed up’ world that effectively bypasses the stranglehold telcos have on infrastructure?

I don’t necessarily agree that the telcos have a ‘stranglehold’.   They provide an important service and a critical investment in an infrastructure I don’t really see us living without.

But we need things like ‘net neutrality’ to make sure that this infrastructure really serves people in an open and non-discriminatory way.  in this regard I am also concerned about more recent legislative attempts [SOPA, PIPA, ACTA] that (perhaps unintentionally) will hurt the overall technical function of the Internet.

It seems that current Web based business models are founded on the idea that businesses have the right to record everything about users/consumers and profit from this information.  Do you think this is a sustainable business model, or do you think the user/consumer will start to think that they, and their data, is worth something and begin to demand recompense of some sort?

There are very few fundamentally different, viable, business models on the Web, so I can see that businesses would want to cash in on user data.  It is only a matter of time before the consumers ‘wise up’ and understand the value of their own data.  Personally I think we should aim at ‘business arrangements’ where all parties benefit.  This includes concrete benefits to the user, perhaps in a way where the user is a bona fide business partner rather than just someone we collect data about.

It is important to understand that what’s at stake here is not only how some user data could be monetized, it is also about users’ privacy.  Luckily I work for an organisation [Nokia] that takes consumer privacy very seriously.

You’ve got a fascinating history, and seem to have gotten into the Semantic Web at the very beginning.

The very, very beginning, yes.  I think I can argue that I’ve been doing this longer than the term has actually existed.

In ’96 I went to work at MIT…  I’d just been hired by Nokia, and they wanted to send somebody to MIT as a kind of visiting faculty member.   So, I worked in Tim Berners-Lee’s team, and one day he asked me what I thought was wrong with the web.

Tim Berners-Lee

Just a small question.

Yeah, not intimidating at all.

I said: “My hope has been to be able to build,” – what then would have been called agents, autonomous agents – and I said: “I can’t really do that because the web was built for humans and human consumption.  I would really, really like to see a web that was more amenable for consumption by automated systems.”

And he [Berners-Lee] said: “Yeah, that’s it! Now, how do we fix that?”

And I went: “Well, how about we try knowledge representation and apply that to web technologies.”  Because knowledge representation is a branch of artificial intelligence that has a long history of taking information and representing it in such a way that you can reason about it then draw conclusions from it… things like that.  We agreed that I would look into that, and that’s really how I got into all this.

Of course I had worked on various projects before that, that involved ontologies and knowledge representation, it just wasn’t done on the web.   The big reason being that the web had not really been invented yet.

There was Cyc and some other AI [Artificial Intelligence] things before that… 

Cyc is a very good example of an attempt to build a very large ontology that would encompass common sense knowledge.  But there are many examples of systems that used ontologies in one way or another for narrower domains.  Cyc was an overly ambitious project, in the sense that they really wanted to cover a lot of ground in terms of human knowledge.

I had worked on several projects in the past that applied ontologies to things like planning industrial production, or planning logistics.  So, the question really was, could you build a model of the world that was rich enough and precise enough that a system could use that knowledge to create plans for various things.  In my case those were plans for either how to run industrial production, or large fleets of logistics’ resources.

You were a long, long way in front of everybody else… at least ten years.  It’s incredible!

One might argue too far ahead.

I think at that time most people were just trying to come to grips with basic HTTP and web servers.  If you look at the vested interests, especially of software providers at that time… I guess it wasn’t really the right timing. But I think that time is coming now.

Yeah, I think we’re in a better position now and we’ve certainly seen a lot of adoption of Semantic Web technologies in the last few years.

I think elements of semantic are brilliant.   RDF, for example, is one of the smartest ways I’ve ever seen of describing something.  You can’t break the way semantics talks about something, whereas you can break the interpretation easily in XML.

I start to lose traction with it when it gets towards ontologies.  Do you think that ‘splitting the message’ would help with adoption?  For instance, you can use ontologies, but there is also a part of semantics which is brilliant for just doing ‘business as usual’?

I think there is a fairly broad spectrum of possible ways of making use of this technology.  I’m sure you’ve seen diagrams of the so called layer cake, with the different technologies layered on top of one another.

A Semantic Web Stack (layer cake) [image created by Tim Berners-Lee

I think that it’s up to you to decide how far up that layered structure you want to go.  There are a lot of applications where very simple use of just some of the most basic technologies will give you a lot of benefit.  And then there are other problems where you may actually want to separate a lot of the understanding of your domain from your actual executing code…  for those kinds of things, encapsulating that knowledge in the form of a potentially very complex ontology may be a good way to go.

My issue with ontologies is exactly the same issue I have with the current enterprise software providers… If you talk about mass adoption, as opposed to just specific domain adoption, for every extra entity – be it a class or data table – you decrease your adoption exponentially.   And, once you go up to higher levels, you shouldn’t assume you’re the only person that has a valid way of looking at the world, though you may be using the same data.  I think we’re saying the same thing…

Absolutely.  The interesting thing to say about the current enterprise software providers, I think, is that they have one model of the way to look at the world.   There are cases where companies have had to change the way they do business in order to adopt the enterprise software [currently available].

You have two choices: you either do it their way or else you spend a few million bucks and you do it their way anyhow.

I think that there is a possibility, with these Semantic Web technologies, of getting into more flexible uses of information and I kind of like that idea.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in our ability to share information.  When you start talking about sharing it becomes really dangerous to have very complex, strictly defined semantics.  Because, like you said, other people might have a different interpretation of things.

But you want to nail some things down.  Understanding something about [the] information would give you a baseline for interoperating.  And then, you could do ‘better’ interoperation if you had a better definition of the meaning of the information.

I agree with you about understanding information.  But I think where most things fall to pieces – and this is also looking at business model languages and stuff – as soon as you get anywhere near processes with that information, it goes to hell pretty quickly. 

Exactly.  I spent a few years, at the beginning of the previous decade, working on a large Semantic Web research program funded by DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency].  I was part of an effort to see if we could use ontological technologies to model web services.

Is that DAML and stuff like that?

Exactly; DAML, and DAML-S for services.  We very quickly got into process modeling; and those kinds of things get very difficult…

Very quickly.

Absolutely.  I think that’s the thing that still needs work.

The traditional approach to anything process-oriented just doesn’t work unless you have very tight coupling and a very controlled domain.  But I think there are a lot of different ways of trying to solve the same problem without having to get to that level.

I think that one of the things that is missing from the whole Semantic Web collection of specifications is this notion of action… a notion of behaviour.  It’s hard to model, but I think that we ought to work on that some more.

We [KimmiC/FlatWorld] have taken a more hybrid approach, so we use things like REST architecture, and a lot of stuff from the business world, in terms of authentication and authorisation. 

Sure.  I’m not in any way advocating the use of the WS_* collection of technologies. I’m not a big fan of those.

I’ve looked at all the SOAP stuff and there are a lot of problems… like business process deployment.  It is a nightmare to deploy these technologies.  It’s even more of a nightmare to load balance them.


Essentially, if you’re looking for dynamic relationships – be it in business or whatever – they’re just useless for that sort of thing.  They’re always designed around having control of a large domain space; this is especially true when it comes to deployment of applications.  I just think they’ve missed the point. 

I think the web is the best example of a redundant, massively-distributed application; and we need to look at it more as, “That’s the model,” and we have to work with it.

Absolutely.  I think that for 20 years there have been discussions about these sorts of ad hoc enterprises, or collections of smaller companies, being able to very quickly orchestrate themselves around a particular mission [purpose].  But I think that these technologies, just like you said, are probably not the right answer.

When you wrote your 2009 position paper you noted that rather than languages, the  biggest issues or problems facing the uptake of the Semantic Web were 1. Selling the idea; and 2.  A decent user interface.

Why did you feel that was the case then; and, has your opinion changed regarding these issues in the two+ years since you wrote your paper? 

Semantic Web technologies are well suited to situations where you cannot necessarily anticipate everything – say, about the conditions and context in which an application is used, or which kind of data an application might have available to it.  It is like saying that this is a technology for problems we are yet to articulate.  Sounds like a joke, but it isn’t, and the problem in ‘selling’ Semantic Web technologies is often about the fact that once a problem has been clearly articulated, there are many possible technologies that can be used to solve it.

The issue I have with user interfaces and the user experience is the following: Semantic Web technologies – or more generally, ‘ontological’ technologies – give us a way to represent information in a very expressive manner… that is, we can have rich models and representations of the world.  I feel that user interface technology has a hard time matching this expressiveness.  This issue is related to what I said earlier about not being able to anticipate all future situations; writing software that can handle unanticipated situations is hard.

All that said, I don’t like the term ‘Semantic Web applications’.  Users shouldn’t have to care, or need to know, that Semantic Web technologies were used.  These are just useful things in our toolbox when developing applications and services.

What are the key challenges that have to be solved to bring those two problems together?

I am really looking for new programming models and ways to add flexibility.  This is not only a technical problem, we also need to change how people think about software and application development.  I have no silver bullets here.

How do you see applications developing in the next few years – compared to the current environment – as you have mention we have to shift our minds from an application that ‘owns and controls’ it’s own data rather than simply interacting with data?

I think, again, this is about changing how people think about application development.  And, more specifically, I would like to see a shift towards data that carries with it some definition of its semantics.

This was one of the key ideas of the Semantic Web, that you could take some data, and if you did not understand it, there would be ‘clues’ in the data itself as to where to go to find what that data means.

As I see it, the semantics of some piece of data either come from the relationship this data has with other data – including some declarative, ‘machine-interpretable’ definition of this data, for example, an ontology – or are ‘hard-wired’ in the software that processes the data.  In my mind, the less we have the latter, and the more we have the former, the better.

In previous interviews you’ve noted that you feel users should have a say “in how they view  information.”  Do you think that users should become involved in making the semantic web more ‘usable’? And if so, how?

I think users should demand more.  There needs to be a clear ‘market need’ for more flexible ways of interacting with information.  User experience is a challenge.

On this topic, I also want to point out how unhappy I am with the modern notion of an ‘app’.  Many apps I have seen tend to merely encapsulate information that would be much better offered through the Web, allowing inter-linking of different content, etc. It kind of goes with what I said earlier about openness…

There’s a lot of guys saying they can plug two systems together easily, but it almost always means at the data level.   It doesn’t really work once you start applying context on top of it.

I’d like to see a middle ground where we have partial interoperability between systems, because that’s how humans interact.

That’s something we’re looking at as well.  I view it like this: when I go through Europe, I can speak a little bit of German, a little bit of French. I’m not very good, but I have to have a minimal level of semantic understanding to get what I want: to get a beer.  I don’t have to understand the language completely, just enough, in context, to act on it.

Speaking of acting on things… Ora, where are you going with semantics in the future?

That’s a good question. Right now I’m working on some problems of big data analytics.

With semantics?

Nokia is investing in large-scale analytics, so I’m in the middle of that right now.

I’m currently looking at how to tackle the problem of how to bootstrap behaviour.  Behaviour and notions of action are not well-tackled in the space of the Semantic Web, and I’d really like to get into bringing two information systems in contact with one another, and have them figure out how to interoperate.

That’s very ambitious.

Right.  And I’m not entirely sure if people understand that that’s an important question to tackle.

Oh, it’s an important question to tackle; it’s just more a question of… Again, you’re very far ahead of the game.

Well, I think that today, if you want to make systems A and B interoperate, it’s usually a large engineering undertaking.  So, it’s directly related to the question of separating information from applications…  you could pick the applications you like and take the information that you’re interested in and make something happen.  In terms of interoperating systems, right now we have a situation where we either have full interoperability, or we have nothing… we have no middle ground.

You can learn more about Ora via his website, blog and  Twitter feed.

[Kim, Michael and Ora Skyped from their homes in Boston and Sydney.]

[This interview has been translated into the Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich of Webhostinggeeks.com]