Speaking tonight on the Semantic Web

The Semantic Web has been a strong interest of mine over the last two years. When I came across RDF and OWL through a research project at IST back in 2008, a Web Standard no less, I’d somehow been completely oblivious to its existence.

If you’ve never heard of the Semantic Web, here’s a quick intro video. I’ll wait here.

Everybody back? Okay! The concepts behind OWL seemed to solve a few thorny design issues I’d come across in a decade of building relational databases-backed Web 1.0 apps, and do so in a really elegant way. Working with OWL fuses aspects of relational database modeling, information architecture, and object oriented design into a new set of technologies and techniques.

As I started talking to members of the developer community at Penn State about the Semantic Web, I got a lot of blank stares and misunderstandings (“Isn’t that just XML?”). And yet, every graduate student in IST was exposed to ontologies and semantic modelling as a routine part of the curriculum. The research community had been working with ontologies for years. Clearly there was a large academic-practitioner gap here to be bridged.

So as I’ve done many times in the past with a new technology or concept, I started talking about the Semantic Web at user group meetings and conferences, and looking for ways to apply these technologies in low-risk venues.

Tonight is the latest in this series of speaking engagements, and possibly the most challenging thus far. I’ll be presenting my talk “An Argument For Semantics” at the Portland Java User Group. I’ve been really impressed by the quality of home grown presenters at PJUG since I started attending. My talk will be very different – less code, more conceptual – than usual PJUG speakers, but I’m hoping the technical experience in the room can generate a good discussion on how and when it makes sense to employ Semantic Web technologies in real world applications.

A Cloak of Accessibility

If you regularly run your browser with JavaScript support disabled like I do, you’ll occasionally run into a Web site that completely fails to operate, especially among so-called Web 2.0 sites.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but Twitter.com is not the most accessible site on the Web. I find that somewhat odd, given the relative simplicity of the user interface. This has improved a bit in the 18 months or so that I’ve been using the service, but I wouldn’t say it’s perfect yet. At least the site functionality gracefully degrades when you don’t have JavaScript.

Enter Dennis Embree. Seeing a need, or at least an opportunity, he created a more accessible Web-based Twitter interface: AccessibleTwitter.com

The site contains a short list of some of the things the developers fixed:

  • All links are keyboard accessible.
  • Simple, consistent layout and navigation.
  • Works with or without JavaScript.
  • Large default text size and high color contrast.
  • Looks great in high or low resolution.
  • Forms are marked up for optimal accessibility.
  • Code is semantic, light, and adheres to best practices in Web Standards.

I wonder if there is a niche here for accessibility-aware Web developers: find Web 2.0 sites that brush off demands for accessibility affordances and wrap them in a “cloak of accessibility” spun from their own APIs.

I think this is a really interesting idea. I wonder what other sites could benefit from such a technique?

Fun with Twitter

Stevie told me about Twitter sometime last week, but things have been so hectic I haven’t had a chance to try it until tonight. It’s pretty entertaining so far.

Twitter is sort of an RSSoCS – Really Simple Stream of Consciousness Syndication. It’s basically an SMS/IM aware blog or diary, written one line at a time. I’m sending messages to my Twitter diary with a slick little Mac app called Twitterific.

I’m not sure anyone will actually care to know my innermost, Tourettesiest thoughts, but hey, you’re reading this blog aren’t you?