“Linked Closed Data” & Semantic Technologies in the Scottish Government

A few months ago I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Winstanley, data interoperability specialist for the Scottish Government. At the meeting he mentioned how he was using semantic technologies within the Scottish Government to, amongst other applications, generate reports which analyse the communication structures within the organisation. I was quite intrigued to find out more, so he sent me some more information about the system. It generates

“a network of Linked Data from various sources including the log files of the records management system, the Parliamentary Questions system, staff directory and the courses/events booking system.  Entities identified in the analysis of these datasets are described in an RDFS ontology and the URI set patterns from the ontology are used in bespoke scripts to create the Linked Data which is then stored in a triplestore and queried using SPARQL.  ‘Canned’ queries are used to populate reports to show people how they are related to others through the shared use of information resources:  “Who reads what I write?”, “Who writes what I read?” and “Who reads what I read?”  These queries are also aggregated to the various levels of organisational granularity, e.g. Branch, Division, Group, etc.  The total network is also graphically presented and there is a daily automated production of a plot of the network showing document readership aggregated to Division level.  Social network analyses are run on an ad-hoc basis, as is the analysis of communication patterns using the data in email logs.”

(From the 1st UK Ontology Network presentation notes)

Peter has also worked with Swirrl (who happen to be based in Manchester) on a project to publish electricity and gas consumption data of Scottish Government buildings using Swirrl’s PublishMyData platform. For some more information on government open data, have a look at these presentation slides from the first Glasgow #OKFN (Open Knowledge Foundation) meeting, and from the 2nd UK Ontology Network meeting.

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The missing layer in the Semantic Web stack

This somehow evolved from a Twitter exchange with Dan Brickley about the W3C RDF and OWL Working Groups, after I had spent the best part of the day discussing (mildly arguing over) how the OWL API treats syntax errors which kind of aren’t syntax errors – more about that in a later post. Anyway, I made this: The missing layer in the Semantic Web stack.


(My modification is based on a version of the well known Semantic Web stack image which seems to be from a talk by Steve Bratt of the W3C. Correct me if I’m wrong please :)

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Want to teach homeless people how to code? Yeah. Don’t. (And here’s what to do instead.)

TL;DR summary: if you’ve got tech skills and you want to be super awesome, go and run classes for a local charity or community group.

I’m not sure whether this is actually serious or someone’s just trolling Medium, but I’ve just come across this post: Finding the unjustly homeless, and teaching them to code (Update: someone just created an “Insanely offensive posts” collection on Medium specifically for this post. Oh, Internet!). The very short post is written by an NYC developer who plans to teach the homeless man he passes on his way to work how to code, the idea being that the homeless man can become a software developer himself and earn a living. The author’s strategy is as follows:

“The idea is simple. Without disrespecting him, I will offer two options:

  1. I will come back tomorrow and give you $100 in cash.
  2. I will come back tomorrow and give you three JavaScript books, (beginner-advanced-expert) and a super cheap basic laptop. I will then come an hour early from work each day—when he feels prepared—and teach him to code.”

I don’t even know where to start here. This sounds like a very bad idea from someone who’s completely delusional. Moreover, I find the idea of giving a vulnerable and powerless person the choice between cash and some books of dubious value incredibly disrespectful. Sorry dude.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely appreciate the author’s willingness to help and volunteer his time. In fact, I’ve been running several charitable projects in the past few years (such as the “Beards of Manchester” calendar which raised a couple of grand for a local homelessness charity, co-founding “Manchester Girl Geeks” which has been organising low cost/free tech and science workshops for women for the past four years and is entirely run by volunteers, and managing the “Digital Skills for Women” project which organised free IT classes for unemployed women) and if there’s one thing that’s always hugely helpful it’s people volunteering their time. Oh, and giving their money, but that’s a different issue.

However, the idea of “freelancing” and approaching homeless persons directly to somehow “solve” their problems through whatever scheme you’ve come up with is simply misguided. I’m no expert on homelessness either, so this is really just an opinion and common sense, but I doubt being homeless is something that can be “cured” by learning to code. Especially if you’re learning to code while you’re still homeless.

 ”And do you have any other suggestions/gear he would need?”

Yeah. Like, safe accommodation perhaps. Regular meals. Access to health care. Y’know. I honestly don’t think learning to code (even to the level of being able to work as a developer, if that’s possible at all if you have to worry about basic things like “where do I get food from”) will help anyone who’s currently homeless to not be homeless anymore.

So, what can you do if you want to help?

Loads. Seriously. Loads. In the three weeks or so that we accepted applications for the “Digital Skills” courses we had around 100 women who applied for the “Basic IT Skills” courses, and another 80 applications for the more advanced courses (Social Media, and yes, Introduction to Web Development, and Introduction to Programming). Given that our target group (women from the area who were unemployed) was fairly narrow and that most of them did not hear about the courses on the internet (duh.), this is quite impressive. And even while we were running the classes, we kept getting requests from women who asked if we were planning another round, and from local charities who wanted us to run courses for their audience.

In short: there’s a huge demand for free IT classes, whether that’s basic or more advanced skills. We were lucky enough to obtain funding to pay our course tutors (all professional IT tutors and developers) for teaching the Digital Skills classes, but most charities won’t have any money left for things like that. Here in Manchester, the local libraries also run drop-in sessions to teach basic IT skills and help people getting started with using a computer in the first place.

And this is where you come in: you can offer to run IT classes (of all levels) for established charities and community groups. How about a weekly drop in class, on a fixed day and at a fixed time, for basic IT help? Or a weekend course with more advanced stuff? Show people how to use Facebook and Skype to stay in touch with family and friends? Teach young people how to stay safe online? A class specifically aimed at women with kids which runs during school hours? You get the idea.

There are two main advantages in helping out with an established group. First, they will know what their target audience is and what skills they need. In the case of the “Digital Skills” project, it was Word processing, finding information online, sending emails, basic stuff that is essential when you’re looking for jobs. The Social Media course was aimed at showing the learners how to keep a professional profile online, but also give them some ideas for Social Media marketing/community management type jobs which can be done working from home. For the more advanced classes, our focus was more on the general benefits of coding, such as building up confidence in technical skills.

And second, the learners will be familiar with the organisation and feel “safe”, which is incredibly important when working with vulnerable people. We ran our “Digital Skills” courses at local libraries which were absolutely brilliant – people know how to get there, they’re generally easy to get to by public transport, they’re friendly, trusted, and safe places (which is why you really need to stop closing them down, dear Manchester City Council), and they happened to have a large number of PCs available for us.

What are you waiting for?

To get you started, in Manchester specifically, there’s

and plenty of other charities and local community groups that might be happy to have you run classes – just ask. If you’ve got basic IT skills or some more advanced coding skills, and a couple of hours to spare every week or month, please volunteer. Oh and if you’re reading this post and you haven’t got any tech skills but some time to spare, please volunteer. We’ll always need a pair of extra hands.

On that note:

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Recent publications…

While I didn’t get round to doing much new research this year (since my thesis kept me a bit busy…) I still managed to squeeze in a few papers with quite a few co-authors, and it seems that this year we’ve had a five paper in a row lucky streak. Which also resulted in me having deadlines for three camera ready versions, a short report, and my thesis corrections within a week of each other – good times. Here’s a list of my recent publications and a few words on them:

Rafael Goncalves, Samantha Bail, Ernesto Jimenez-Ruiz, Nicolas Matentzoglu, Bijan Parsia, Birte Glimm, and Yevgeny Kazakov. OWL Reasoner Evaluation (ORE) Workshop 2013 Results: Short Report. In: Proc. of ORE 2013, 2013. [PDF tbc]

The OWL Reasoner Evaluation Workshop short report, including a detailed description of the experiment setup, the test corpora, and the results. I’ll post a brief writeup of the workshop later, but I can say for now that I had tons of fun!

Matthew Horridge, Samantha Bail, Bijan Parsia, Ulrike Sattler. Toward Cognitive Support for OWL Justification. Accepted for publication in: Knowledge Based Systems. [PDF]

This is mainly work from Matthew’s thesis and some exploratory study I did on the cognitive complexity of justifications, i.e. what kinds of justifications are difficult for OWL users to understand, and whether they recognise structural patterns in justifications. Super interesting work which I’d love to continue soon.

Samantha Bail, Bijan Parsia, Ulrike Sattler. The Logical Diversity of Explanations in OWL Ontologies. In: Proc. of CIKM, 2013. [PDF]

Basically Chapters 5 and 7 of my thesis which are concerned with structural similarities between justifications in theory and practice (Chapter 7 is a survey of BioPortal ontologies). I already published a smaller version of this at the WoDOOM and DL workshops last year, but this one has more details, a correct proof, and a very extensive evaluation. Probably my favourite paper so far.

Nicolas Matentzoglu, Samantha Bail, Bijan Parsia. A Snapshot of the OWL Web. In: Proc. of ISWC-13, 2013. [PDF]
Nicolas Matentzoglu, Samantha Bail, Bijan Parsia. A Corpus of OWL DL Ontologies. In: Proc. of DL 2013, 2013. [PDF]

These two papers document how we managed to get a “reasonable” set of OWL ontologies from a large-scale web-crawl of OWL ontologies via “non-ontologies” removal, cluster removal, and duplicate removal, and compares the main metrics of the crawl corpus against existing OWL ontology collections. The main ideas behind the work were a) gather a corpus that’s useful for experiments (and allows random sampling), b) see what the OWL landscape is like in 2013.

We had a full paper at ISWC, and a poster paper at DL. The “One Stop OWL Shop” poster was a collaboration between me (graphics) and Bijan (wishlists) which ended up looking rather “spiffing” – we had lots of fun with it at the DL workshop, and maybe it will even travel to ISWC in Sydney later this year.


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The Justificatory Structure of OWL Ontologies – ISWC 2011 talk

I just remembered that my talk at the International Semantic Web Conference 2011 was recorded by videolectures.net! The talk summarises the core ideas of my PhD thesis on the “Justificatory Structure of OWL Ontologies”, although there’s been quite a lot of additional work done in the two years since. I also forgot to put Matthew Horridge’s name on the slides… If you’re interested in explanation for OWL ontologies, check out the first 5 minutes or so for an introduction. Watch the talk (32 minutes) here.

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 15.17.13


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