Meet Silk, the Semantic Web for the rest of us

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Almost since Tim Berners-Lee first came up with the original concept of the web, there’s been a new, improved version on the horizon: the much-promised Semantic Web. This, goes the thinking, is a way to make the online world more useful by categorizing everything on a page with a layer of extra information — data that can tell your browser that one particular series of numbers is a date, say, while another is a price. This, in turn, allows your computer to understand more about the information it processes, theoretically making it easier to identify events on the date you’re looking for, or items at the price you’ve chosen.

It’s an ambitious goal that has been chased by many folk over the years — and yet, for all the effort to bring the Semantic Web to life, the reality of the situation is that it always feels just out of reach …  something talked about and hoped for, but never achieved. The truth is that while some progress has been made, we’re still a long way from reaching that vision.

Or are we?

Silk, an application coming out of private beta on Thursday, has a grand ambition to build a version of the Semantic Web that we can all use.

It works like this: you build a series of pages inside Silk and link them together with tags. The pages can be anything you like: text files, pages from your website, company documents, your schedule. And the tags, too, can cover anything you like: any genre of data you can imagine.You then use the simple editor to add tags to your documents (telling it, for example, that the “United States” in your file refers to a country) and it connects the dots for you.

For example: say you’ve got a set of files with information about various countries and you want to rank them by GDP. While traditionally you’d have to do it manually — or at least get an underling to compile a spreadsheet from the data in your documents — Silk makes it far easier to perform the same task without requiring those extra steps.

If your Silk pages are tagged properly, the app simply joins the data together and allows you to instantly build charts, graphs or maps documenting the data you’re after.

Descriptions don’t quite do it justice. To really get an idea of how it works, you have to see it in action.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faJ-TT60PIA]

To me, it’s like some sort of cross between Wolfram Alpha and Wikia, allowing you to perform calculations and answer questions using your own information — and on first glance, it’s really amazing, pulling data together in a fast and powerful way. Imagine if you could perform actions across a huge database like Wikipedia: I know it would save me a huge amount of time.

Something so powerful doesn’t come from nowhere, and it turns out the service is the product of a Dutch team consisting of 11 people, who have been working on the technology for the last couple of years with seed funding from Niklas Zennstrom’s Atomico.

But now things are open to everyone, they could move forward much faster.

Silk’s operations chief, Sander Koppelaar, told me that the public launch was just the latest step in their mission, which is now moving from a lot of behind-the-scenes work with a beta of 10,000 registered users to something more public and open.

“The Semantic Web is a very overwhelming problem, but we’re trying to solve it in a different way, our own way,” he said. “We’ve been developing for over two years, and we’re shifting more and more to user-facing improvements.”

That’s a fair recognition that however useful Silk is right now, it’s still got a long way to go — and in particular there are three issues that I think Silk needs to solve before it can become a significant service.

First, there’s the problem of proper tagging. Without tags, the service is nothing — and tags have to be added manually right now. That’s a laborious job, and the company wants to make it much easier in the future. Koppelaar said that automatic tags on common words, suggestions for which tags may be appropriate and “instant gratification” when something is tagged are all being worked on for future releases. But it’s still a time-consuming roadblock right now.

Second, and somewhat related, there’s the fact that it’s a cloud-based service. That means users can currently only create pages hosted on a subdomain of Silk’s site. This will soon change, he said, with custom domains, extended private use, and company use with larger data sets all probably being paid-for services that will help generate revenues.

Then there’s the fact that each set of Silk documents reside inside a silo, unconnected with any others. While that’s got it uses — not least because your lexicon of semantics may be different than mine — it also means that anyone wanting to use data in Silk must first import it. And if two different people wanted to replicate the Wikipedia example in the video, they would both have to import and tag those pages. Surely it would be much more powerful if there were a common set of data types that could be accessed by all Silk users?

Koppelaar says that there are plenty of additions in the works, and that while it will always remain a cloud-based service, the ability to bring data in through APIs or other widgets is definitely on the cards.

And if those problems get solved? Well, then this could be a really interesting twist for big data and the cloud … and perhaps bring the Semantic Web dream just a step closer to becoming a reality.

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