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Linked data: it’s is not like that; it’s like a bag of potato chips

We’ve been trying to explain partial understanding since at least as far back as the 1998 Extensible Languages note, but the The Fate of the Semantic Web report from Pew still reflects the perception that the Semantic Web will never work because it requires global agreement on one big ontology.

In Tim Berners-Lee’s talk at the gov 2.0 Expo, he gives a wonderful illustration using a bag of potato chips.

On the bag of potato chips, he shows various vocabularies in use:

  • the plain English “potato chips” on the front — note that’s U.S. English; in the U.K., it would be “potato crisps”.
  • the nutrition information on the back, standardized by the U.S. food and drug administration.
  • some allergy information that many people don’t pay any attention to, but those with allergies read very carefully.
  • the UPC code that can be read by any retail checkout machine in the world
  • some numbers on the bottom edge of the package that make no sense to him whatsoever.

He points out that people don’t go “Eek! I won’t eat that! I can’t make sense of those numbers at the bottom.” But object-oriented systems and XML Schema checkers typically do just that. Most people just look at “potato chips” on the front and maybe take a quick look at the number of calories and munch away. He goes on to explain how linked data is not waiting for the whole world to agree on vocabularies for everything; it’s not like that… it’s like a bag of potato chips.

p.s. The bag of chips came from a lunch discussion, but I think the illustration of multiple vocabularies used in product packaging goes back to a paper he wrote in 2008 with Lalana Kagal, The Fractal Nature of the Semantic Web.

8 thoughts on “Linked data: it’s is not like that; it’s like a bag of potato chips

  1. Random aside, but in my Web history diggings I found an earlier TimBL crisps reference a little while back. I don’t have the citation handy but here’s an excerpt:

    “Physics World article for end March 1992
    Will editors of journals such as this in a few years’ time be out looking for new jobs? Will a world, overrun with forests, only use paper for packing the potato crisps eaten by hungry hackers? Should you save this issue of Physics World as a possible collector’s item?”

  2. When you need to go to and convince everyone about a technology all around the globe there’s something wrong in it. Seriously.

    Yes, Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML, but HTML spread by itself. He didn’t need to call everybody stupid and use the bag-of-chips analogy like a showman performing in a late night ad.

  3. @Simon yes, I hope we can (along with O’Reilly, who organized the event and posted the video to youtube) provide captions.

  4. TBL makes good points in this video, although he seems to feel a bit nervous there. I’d like Semantic Web to unfold more swiftly, but I’m afraid the strain on architectural consistency of Web technologies from WhatWG and big players behind it isn’t going away soon, so except for a momentary progress in catchy but superficial features (along the lines of MARQUEE in 1990s, incidentally being reinstated now) available in browsers (mostly borrowed from old orthogonal technologies anyway, like SMIL or XForms, and baked into HTML5 with seemingly purposeful idiosyncrasy) innovation is still going to be held back.

  5. I still don’t get the Bag of Chips analogy.

    I looked at my “Smiths Crisps” here (in Australia) and found no linked data.

    I found “standardised data”….all there for business reasons and legal regulations….

    Perhaps a better analogy is needed….

  6. I thought the analogy was decent but Luigi makes a point
    “When you need to go to and convince everyone about a technology all around the globe there’s something wrong in it.”
    ~ CatesLaw

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