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Ruben Verborgh

The Year of the Developers

Let’s appreciate those who eventually build the Semantic Web, line by line.

The Semantic Web is plagued by various issues, one rather prominent fact being that few people actually heard about it. If you ask me, it’s because we have been focusing almost exclusively on research lately, which is quite odd. After all—no matter how good the research is—eventually, code is at the core of all Web systems. Why is it that we have been selectively deaf and blind for those who build what we need most: actual applications that use Linked Data in the real world? Fortunately, the first Semantic Web Developers Workshop found a very passionate audience. We need more of this, and we need it now.

Within the Semantic Web conference scene, there exists something I like to refer to as the Semantic Web Waterfall. At the top of the waterfall, we have the Research Track, those papers that are the result of deep scientific endeavours. This is always the most prestigious part of any conference. Slightly below that is the In-Use Track, with papers that describe practical use of semantic technologies. If you end up there, you haven’t done too bad… unfortunately, it’s just not a research paper. Somewhere halfway the stream are workshops, where you present preliminary results (that obviously didn’t make it into the Main Track). Close to the water, there are posters and demos.

And somewhere below the surface, there’s development. We prefer not to talk about it.

Research is high up the Semantic Web waterfall; development remains hidden. ©Ersan Memić

We are building research on top of research, which is built on top of lots more research. Yet what is at the foundation?
Does it really make sense to, for instance, keep on optimizing highly specific aspects of triple stores, when simple, reliable public SPARQL endpoints are still non-existent?

Let’s be honest. What does the Semantic Web really need? More research?
After all those years, I’m sick of seeing how the things we put on a pedestal are standing in the way of the Semantic Web’s most urgent needs. Usage. Applications.

How much is all of that research worth if in a few years, the Semantic Web just dies because everybody researches it but nobody develops building blocks people need?

Giving developers the audience they deserve

ISWC, the International Semantic Web Conference, is one of the yearly top venues for Semantic Web advancements. Every year, high-profile scientific papers are presented, some of which have a long-lasting impact on the community. Sadly, all of the 12 previous editions have ignored developers: even posters and demos needed a rather strong “scientific contribution” in order to get accepted.

So even though development is urgently necessary to help the Semantic Web take off, it was impossible to get into this conference if your “only” contribution was code. In practice, this means that getting a purely theoretical work accepted is much more likely than contributing actual working software. Thereby, I’m not saying that theoretical work is less important—I’m a researcher myself. I just noticed that, even though usage and applications seem to be the pain points of the Semantic Web, addressing them doesn’t bring you any credit there.

This is why I organized the first Developers Workshop at the 13th International Semantic Web Conference. Its purpose was to look at all those things that have been ignored for too long: how do we code the Semantic Web?

We were quite overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the participants. Normally, for a first-time workshop, you have to beg for submissions; instead, I experienced the reverse: 45 submissions and people still begged to get their submission in after the deadline. At the peak moment, the workshop was attended by 70 people. That’s huge. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve done a good job organizing; it certainly shows that there is a very strong community support for development. Those 70 people also send a clear signal towards everybody in the Semantic Web world: we want more of this.

Taking back the Semantic Web from the bottom

Confession time. The things that I’ve been doing recently—writing and sharing code, getting developers together—is part of a master plan to take back the Semantic Web. I believe we’ve overemphasized research, to the extent that we have lost credibility. If we want this Semantic Web to work some day, we need to have applications in place.

For instance, my development work on Linked Data Fragments started from a deep disillusion that building applications on top of live Linked Data was not possible. Just think about it: it’s conceptually the most simple thing one can think of, yet it does not work for various reasons. If we cannot get that to work, what does the research matter? Who cares about a profound theoretical breakthrough for a problem that will never manifest itself if the Semantic Web does not get used?

I encourage everybody to start developing things that actually work today, even though they might not be the most scientifically challenging. This becomes a necessity, as we cannot continue building research on top of research when there is no solid foundation to build upon.

And that’s why we should appreciate our developers more. I’m not saying coding is more important than research—but I am saying we should treat it as equally important. Even if partly as an apology for having ignored our developers for all those years.

To highlight our appreciation towards developers, we handed out a Semantic Web Developer of the Year award to a participant chosen by a combination of public vote and randomness. The mere existence of this gimmick is more important than its actual recipient—even though Kjetil more than deserved it! It says: developers, we need you.

We must stop conducting research in a vacuum. This starts with researchers opening up their venues for developers. Really, most researchers are developers themselves ;-)
Let’s remember 2014 as the year developers started taking back the Semantic Web.

Ruben Verborgh

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