#SSSW2013: Research in theory and practice, and where on earth am I?

The 10th Summer School for Ontology Engineering and the Semantic Web

Arriving by train into Cercedilla, north of Madrid, we immediately encountered other confused looking folk with poster tubes. So we shared taxis (EUR 10) from Cercedilla station to the summer school residence further north, in the forest.

After getting keys for our pleasant, single, en-suite rooms, arrivals congregated in the shade by the building to introduce ourselves.. Again, and again, and again, as new people continuously arrived over the space of a few hours.

A really broad mix of people are here in terms of nationalities and places and levels of study, but I still haven't quite got used to the fact that answering 'Semantic Web stuff' is not specific enough in this crowd, when someone asks you what your research is about. Nobody needs convincing that these technologies are useful!

Later we received schedules, maps, ill-fitting t-shirts* and very helpful name badges, and headed for dinner at the bar down the road.

As is traditional when I write about my experiences in new places, I will describe the food every day. It has become apparent, at this residence at least, that variety of ingredients is not ordinary, so in this respect meals are simple. Dinner that first night started with a salad (lettuce, olives, tomato, onion, shredded beetroot and a single slice of hard boiled egg; no dressing), followed by - for the majority - slices of meat (beef? Pork? I dunno..) and fries. Mine was a plate of mushy green vegetables with a little seasoning, that was pretty tasty. Dessert was a single pear, delivered with ceremony, but otherwise unadorned. Healthy, at least.

Yet we were all (those I sat with at least) were left feeling a little unsatisfied.

I shared a table with a French, Spanish, Italian and Irish guy. Conforming appropriately to stereotypes, and setting up reputations for the rest of the week, the French and the Italian shared the bottle of wine on the table; the rest of us went without.

I returned to bed after a couple of hours of socialising and enjoying the cool air in and around the bar.


The day started early, and with no hot water or wifi for anyone. Breakfast was combinations of sweet pastries, coffee, tea, juice and bread.

Punctuated variously by coffee breaks, the learning began in earnest.

During the introduction by Mathieu D'Aquin, I found out that I am one of 53 students selected out of 96 applicants to attend this year's Summer School of the Semantic Web! I had no idea it was that selective, or that there had been that much competition.

The first keynote was by Frank van Harmelen, about all the Semantic Web questions we couldn't ask ten years ago.


Semantic Web questions we couldn't ask 10 years ago from Frank Van Harmelen

Frank started by saying that the early Semantic Web vision has morphed into the more manageable vision of a Web of Data, or a Giant Global Graph, and outlined the principles of the Semantic Web as they appear to stand at present:

1\\\\. Give everything a name (entities).
2\\\\. Relations form graph between things.
3\\\\. Names are addresses on the Web (so we inherit properties of Web like AAA).
4\\\\. Add semantics.

Frank pointed out the advantages of the fact the Linked Data crowd, grown naturally and not designed, is now so big we don't know how many triples it contains, nor how fast it is growing. Companies and organisations (like Google, NXP, BBC, DataGov) are using Semantic Web technologies to achieve their own ends, for a variety of different use cases, without caring much about the Semantic Web, and this is contributing to the growth.

This growth has given rise to a number of research areas that were impossible to realisitically ask questions about ten years ago, including self- organisation, distribution of data, provenance, dynamics and change, errors and noise (how to deal with disagreements).

Frank asserted that rules and structures, algorithms and patterns in data, exist whether we are looking at them or not. He used the analogy that OWL is our microscope, and it may be the tool that distorts our vision of the information universe rather than properties of what we are looking at (for example, structures in data presenting themselves well in some domains but not others).

He went on to promote the roll of the Informatician to be to test theories, hypothesis and falsify, as scientists rather than engineers. To discover, rather than build.

I struggle with this view of the world, and feel instinctively that theory and practice are intrinsically linked; one can't exist without the other, not just in the grand scheme of things, but in day to day work and research. This is one of the main points of contention with my own PhD, and I've no doubt there will be many more blog posts about this issue in the near future as I reconcile my need to create something immediately useful with the necessity of producing a contribution to knowledge at large.

See my raw notes here.

We had an Introduction to Linked Data by Mathieu D'Aquin (raw notes here), followed by a workshop. We wrote SPARQL queries to populate a pre- written web page with information about Open University courses, sub-courses and locations thereof.

Lunch, similar to the previous night's dinner, was a starter salad, an entire half chicken (or something) plus fries for the carnivores and the most unappealing risotto of my life for (not that I'm ungrateful, but I have never been unable to finish a meal due to boredom before). I went for a walk with some others to grab some fresh air before the afternoon's work, and missed out on watermelon.

Manfred Hauswirth presented some really exciting stuff about annotating and using streams of data. Particularly challenging is how to integrate this with static data and make inferences over the lot. Streams include sensor data, as well as ever-flowing social media streams for example; anything that changes over time.

They've built some systems to process this kind of data, and one of them is available as middleware.

My raw notes are here.

In the afternoon we had a poster session, where all participants pinned up posters about their work, and discussed at length with anyone who was interested. Here's evidence that I participated.

And here's Paolo's:

I wrote a few notes about things from other peoples' posters that I need to look up.

The main feedback I received was about making sure I focus, narrow down my topic, and concentrate on some evaluatable deliverables that are PhD-worthy.

Questions like (paraphrasing) "why should we care about digital creatives?" threw me, because I thought the obvious answer - that they are people too, Web users, technology users, contributors to culture and an ecosystem of digital content and data - was apparently not enough from an academic standpoint.

I was simultaneously told to focus more, and to explain why the problem I'm trying to solve is applicable to all domains, not just digital creatives. But some of the problems I'm looking at have been (or are being) solved in other domains (like e-health, biological research, education) and the reason what I'm doing is interesting is because none of these solutions quite work for digital creatives, and I want to find solutions that do, and try to figure out why.

I'm still stuck in some sort of struggle between theory and practice; thinking and doing. And the long-standing problem of how to decide which doing actually worked.

I've started scribbling notes about the narrowing down problem. I'll need to have this figured out before my first year review in August anyway, so stay tuned for another post all about it.

Then I sneaked off for a nap.

Dinner at the bar again; the usual salad, plus some eggy fish thing for most. I got a plate of artichoke. Artichoke is great, I love it, and I'm all for simple meals. But I remain unconvinced that a plate of only artichoke constitutes an acceptable level of effort on the part of caterers. And the sheer quantity made it start to taste a bit funny after a while. But not to worry; we rounded off with a solitary peach apiece.

Further socialising, and appreciation of the night sky, before returning to bed write blog posts.

I'm super excited and inspired by the talks, work I've heard about so far, and the atomsphere of the place. I'm excited to learn a helluva lot, and remind myself that I'm not facing impossible problems, and am not facing many problems alone. I remember that I am instinctively passionate about the Web and the possibilities it holds (and indeed has already realised) for the empowerment of individuals. I remember how lucky I am to be able to sustain myself through studying something I love so much, and to have the potential to make a change, and through my work maybe even facilitate others to be able to make a living doing what they love, as well.

🏷 http://vocab.amy.so/blog#Done http://vocab.amy.so/blog#Done cercedilla events hacking knowledge engineering learning linked data madrid ontologies phd poster presenting semantic web summer school spain sssw13 sssw2013 summer school travel

Last modified: