Underlying the technology, the standards, the markup, the startups, there has to be a strong sense of purpose behind websites and web projects for them to be successful and used. For libraries, in the past that was putting the catalogue online, now it’s making the catalogue and its data open. For bloggers, it’s dissemination of ideas, and for others, building a community of practice [PDF].

Some of the most interesting developments online are projects aimed at social change, technology for non-profits, and information for advocacy. Whether these projects aim to persuade, organise, raise awareness, or raise funds they have something in common - using the web for a purpose.

So what’s this got to do with the Semantic Web?

On the surface of it, the Semantic Web is about creating relationships between data. This gives data flexibility and strength. Open data enables raw research information, records and more to be shared and built upon by others. Because of the power of data, many not-for-profit designers and activists are putting their energy into developing mashups and visualising information. NetSquared is currently running a mashup competition to show how they can be used for social change. The Tactical Technology Collective prepared a booklet on Information Visualization for Advocacy to show the power of presenting information as images, not just static tables and bar charts. Expect to see more projects of this type as the ability to link and build on data with RDF and query data with SPARQL and other Semantic Web tools takes off.

Tools for Change

Ethan Zuckerman has posted notes from his talk at ETech, a talk that was entitled The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism. It’s a fascinating look at all aspects of activism online, from using Google Maps to track the whereabouts of government aircraft, to pointing out injustices in land ownership; to Twitter and SMS to connect people and spread news fast. CNN’s Inside Africa program recently covered the impact of mobile phones in Africa for social organising, sharing information, and helping in the fight against HIV/AIDS by reminding people when to take their medication. This is what we can do today. With the ability to exchange data and create meaning, these tools will be even more dynamic with the Semantic Web.

Another fascinating article looking at the hype and reality of web 2.0 and the promise of the social web for activism and change is Trebor Scholz’s article in this month’s First Monday, Market Ideology and the Myths of Web 2.0. Scholz concludes -

By defining today’s Social Web solely through the lens of business, however, we loose track of all that, which the Web could be. Re–imagine the Social Web as a place for unmarketed, non–mainstream projects that caters to all needs of those who inhabit it.

Purpose + the Semantic Web

One of the great things about the Semantic Web is that it has the ability to provide so many services and benefits to research, data, activism, and advocacy, and to link researchers with readers and librarians, and so on. But it is important to ensure that this focus is emphasised as the Semantic Web continues to develop.

I became interested in the Semantic Web because of its potential for eResearch. As librarians, we assist researchers with databases and datasets made by others (often commercially) all the time. What role might we play in helping researchers to create their own? And how will the outputs of this data, research and social change interact online in the future? How can we help to guide and shape these processes?

Originally published on the semanticlibrary.net blog