Sunday, May 23, 2010

Freebasing the University

(This is an expanded version this previous post that I'm submitting to Hacking the Academy)

If you ran the zoo, how would you redesign your presence on your university website?

I wasn't looking for the answer to this question but a couple weeks ago I was reading up on the nascent Open Government movement in Canada when I stumbled upon a website that immediately struck me with its grace and power. And ever since I've been repeatedly asking myself, "How can I make my library's website more like" is the volunteer, spare-time creation of Michael Mulley, who is the one man of a one-man web development shop based in Montreal, Quebec. He developed the site to make political information easier for citizens to find and follow as well as to encourage transparency in government. But it's not so much the information on the site that I want to draw attention to. Instead, I would like to praise how so elegantly links politicians to the words they say, to the bills that they vote on, to the media coverage that they have received, and to the populations that they represent.

And so, I have been re-imaging The University as Parliament. Parliament has reports, bills, laws, committees, parties, departments, a House, a Senate, rules of order, Members of Parliament, transcripts and media coverage. The University has courses, programs, departments, faculties, a Senate, rules of order, research groups, committees, reports, research articles, and media coverage. They seem more alike than not.

So imagine your university website with a front page like with a set of keywords taken from the day's seminars, speaking events, as well as nouns from research papers just published and even from course descriptions of classes being taught that day. Each event, paper or class would be automagically linked to the people involved with the work. These people would be, in turn, linked to all their various campus affiliations (faculties, committees, departments, research groups) as well as to the courses that they are presently teaching. Each course would be linked to a description to that course and would be further associated with matching library resources....

In short, if you had to build a university web presence from scratch, you would be mad not to build linked data into its foundation.

And yet, after looking and asking around I have only found one institution of higher education that describes its organization, the people of that organization and their work using the recommended RDF framework for computer mediated linking. At this point in time, this is understandable: Tim Berner's Lee campaign for linked data is only just over a year old and at this stage, the instructions on How to Publish Linked Data On The Web are still quite daunting to those not already familiar with the language of the Semantic Web. But there are new tools being developed to help build this new scaffolding of the Internet. At the moment, my tool of choice is Freebase, which aims to be the Wikipedia of linked data. My university, among many others, is already there as a Freebase topic.

Incidentally, I'm well aware that you might not be as enamored with the prospect of your university's website being replaced with a search box and keywords just like  That's okay. In fact, your displeasure actually supports another reason why academic institutions need to embrace linked data: the information within our institutions need be able to be re-mixed and re-presented in a multitude of ways to fulfill the multitude of different research, teaching, institutional, and promotional needs that are currently not being met.

For example, I've been trying to figure out how to link library-licensed  research databases to particular courses being taught on campus and, more importantly, trying to determine how we can have links from course websites go to a set of relevant library resources. Making such connections are important because undergraduates lack an understanding of an academic discipline which makes their search for research (and even their search for research help) a difficult one. At the moment, it is near impossible to make such links because some faculty have their course material within course management systems, while other instructors have gone edupunk and have found their own ways to share and communicate with their students online. A publicly available linked data schema for our course catalogue would make my library-linking project possible because it would generate links that are not dependent on platforms.

"Public information should be meaningfully public, which today means shareable and computer-readable". That's from today but it very well may be from our students, our surrounding communities, and perhaps even our politicians tomorrow.

1 comment:

art said...

I am fascinated by Lisa and Gillian's slides on Zemanta and Calais, I think getting the hooks for semantic link construction into the content creation process itself would be extremely useful. I'd love to see that kind of option in word processing proper, like a sort of intellisense, maybe Google Docs will work this in at some point. Replacing the university web site with something like would be a tough prospect, but maybe an could use the main university site in the same way that openparliament uses hansard. The library web site, on the other hand, might be a natural for something like this. Replace "What they're talking about" with "What they are teaching", "MPs" with "Instructors", and "Bills" with "Courses", and the results would be interesting, but the one that might raise the most unique prospects would be the "Enter a postal code, name, or phrase" on the front page. What if this was "Enter a course code, name, or phrase" and there was an option for a student to self-identify, that could be powerful if there were linkages put forward that cross-referenced course materials with registered courses, for example. The amazing thing to me about is how much of its magic has been achieved without linked data, it does suggest that the sky is the limit if the content becomes more linkable from the start.