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Future knowledge containers and death of the Semantic Web? Innovative talk at STM seminar

9 Dec, 11 | by BMJ

At last week’s STM Innovations Seminar, thought leaders from a range of disciplines converged to discuss the latest developments in publishing.

The opening keynote speaker was Richard Padley, MD of Semantico, who announced to a surprised audience that the Semantic Web was in fact dead. Next up was Herbert Van de Sompel, who unveiled his work on recreating the web-based scholarly record as it was at a certain point in time; a plug-in called Memento. This allows the user to see resources as they existed in the past (including citations that point to archived copies of papers, if available). Anita de Waard, Disruptive Technologies Director for Elsevier, shared a number of recent projects that aim to accelerate the revolution in executable research. Of particular interest was the Claim-Evidence Network in Medicine, which will aggregate data to automatically update clinical decision support systems (CDS) using linked data.

Computable Document Format (CDF)
Perhaps the most inspiring presentation (if only for the live app coding on stage) came from Conrad Wolfram of Wolfram Research. The company, best known for the “answer engine” Wolfram Alpha, has built an interactive document format for sharing complex data. He explained that online documents are like yesterday’s paper—flat, lifeless, inactive. In contrast, the Computable Document Format (CDF) puts easy-to-author interactivity at its core; empowering readers to drive content and generate results live. In much the same vein as executable papers, the idea is to move away from ”paper under glass’ and to reconceptualise scholarly output using the technologies available to us now (rather than just replicating print).

The CDF allows its user to program interactive experiences into a document so that data can be explored more easily. You can create widgets that allow the user to fiddle with sliders, input numbers or play animations on-demand. For example, on Wolfram Research’s blog, there’s an interactive widget that explains the Doppler effect – the way sounds change in pitch depending on whether they are approaching or moving away from your position. Wolfram’s goal is to make it as easy to produce little interactive widgets as it is to create a graph in Microsoft Office’s Excel (i.e. doesn’t require knowledge of  a programming language). The theory is that data is more easily communicable when it’s interactive, than when it’s static.

“The idea is to provide a knowledge container that’s as easy to author as documents, but with the interactivity of apps,” said Wolfram. “For CDFs to make live interactivity as everyday a way to communicate as spreadsheets made charts.”

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