Archive for the 'ontology' Category

Questions for Open Calais?

So I’m interviewing the folks over Thomson Reuters on Thursday for a piece that should be published at CJR. We’ll being talking about a relatively new service they’re providing freely. That service is called Open Calais, and it does some fancy stuff to plain text.

What fancy stuff? If you send it a news article, Open Calais will give you back the deets—and, way more importantly, it will make them obvious to your computer as well. That’s my description inspired by the Idiot’s guide, anyhow. (Yes, “deets” means “details” to cool kids, so get on board.)

<digression>Basically, the whole point of the semantic web is to make what’s obvious to you also obvious to your computer. For people who have always anthropomorphized their every laptop and piece of software—loved them when they just work, coaxed them when they slow to a crawl, and yelled at them when they grind to a halt—this can be a serious head-scratcher and a boring one at that. I blame Clippy the Microsoft Office Assistant. I also blame super-futuristic sci-fi movies that give us sugar-plum images of computers as pals—bright, sophisticated, and in possession of a knowledge like we epistemologically gifted humans have. Screw Threepio. Finally, I blame that jerk Alan Turing, who fed us the unintuitive half-truth that a computer could be conscious.

So it feels really silly so to say, again, but computers are ones and zeroes, NAND gates and NOR gates. They called computers because they do computation. They don’t do meaning as such. (Oh boy do I hope I get flamed in the comments by someone who knows his way around BsIV way better than I do.)</digression>

Open Calais will pick out people, companies, and places—these are called “named entities.” It will also identify facts and events in articles. Because Thomson Reuters is finance-focused information provider, many of the facts and events it can recognize are about business relationships like subsidiaries and events like bankruptcies, acquisitions, and IPOs. The list goes on and on. Finally, Open Calais will identify very broad categories like politics, business, sports, or entertainment.

Open Calais will also associate these deets with more further information on teh interwebs. So just for instance, if the web service identifies a person in your article, it will give you and your finicky, picky, and ultimately dumb computer a nice pointer to this computer-friendly version of wikipedia called dbpedia. Or if Calais identifies a movie, it will offer a pointer to linked data, as far as I can tell, is still a pretty vague notion. It promises to deliver more than it has to date, and that’s not a derogation.

But why freely—or essentially so in most cases? If you keep within liberal limits, you owe Thomson Reuters no money in exchange. Correct me if I’m wrong, but all they want, more or less, is that you offer them attribution and use their linked-data pointers (they call them URIs). Ken Ellis, chief scientist at Daylife, which may be best known to journalists through its association with Jeff Jarvis, took a stab at answering the “why free?” question:

Thomson Reuters has a large collection of subscription data services. They eventually want to link to these services. Widespread use of Calais increases the ease with which customers can access these subscription data services, ultimately increasing their ability to extract revenue from them.

That sounds to me like Thomson Reuters is interested in making its standards the standards. And that bargain really does sound reasonable. I guess.

But journalists are a wildly skeptical bunch. They’re skeptical—aloof even, way too cool for school and ideology. Journalists have a pretty acute and chronic deficiency in a little thing called trust. Maybe it’s justified, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s mostly justified, or maybe it’s mostly unjustified.

Either way, my gut’s telling me that journalists are going to need a fuller narrative from Thomson Reuters about why they should rely on another news and information company. When I talk to Tom and Krista, that’s what I’ll be largely interested in.

And you? What do you want to know about Open Calais. Leave your questions in the comments, and I’ll be sure to ask them.

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Obstreperous Minnesota

Every once in a while—and maybe more often than I’d like to admit—I re-read Clay Shirky. Today, I re-read “Ontology Is Overrated.”

And today, I’m ready to disagree with it around the margins.

On fortune telling. Yes, Shirky’s correct that we will sometimes mis-predict the future, as when we infer that some text about Dresden is also about East Germany and will be forever. But, no, that doesn’t have to be a very strong reason for us not to have some lightweight ontology that then inferred something about a city and its country. We can just change the ontology when the Berlin Wall falls. It’s much easier than re-shelving books, after all; it’s just rewriting a little OWL.

On mind reading. Yes, Shirky’s correct that we will lose some signal—or increase entropy—when we mistake the degree to which users agree and mistakenly collapse categories. And, yes, it might be generally true about the world that we tend to “underestimate the loss from erasing difference of expression” and “overestimate loss from the lack of a thesaurus.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, and for two reasons.

First, why can’t we just get our estimations tuned? I’d think that the presumption would be that we could at least give a go and, otherwise, that the burden of demonstrating that we just cannot for some really deep reason falls on Shirky.

Second, we don’t actually need to collapse categories; we just need to build web services that recognize synonymy—and don’t shove them down our users’ throats. I take it to be a fact about the world that there are a non-trivial number of people in the world for whom ‘film’ and ‘movies’ and ‘cinema’ are just about perfect synonyms. At the risk of revealing some pretty embarrassing philistinism, I offer that I’m one of them, and I want my web service to let me know that I might care about this thing called ‘cinema’ when I show an interest in ‘film’ or ‘movies.’ I agree with Shirky that we can do this based solely on the fact that “tag overlap is in the system” while “the tag semantics are in the users” only. But why not also make put the semantics in the machine? Ultimately, both are amenable to probabilistic logic.

Google showed it is the very best at serving us information when we know we care about something fuzzy and obscure—like “obstreperous minnesota.” I don’t think Shirky would dispute this, but it’s important to bear in mind that we also want our web services to serve us really well when we don’t know we care about something (see especially Daniel Tunkelang on HCIR (@dtunkelang)). That something might be fuzzy or specific, obscure or popular, subject to disagreement or perfectly unambiguous.

People and organizations tend to be unambiguous. No one says this fine fellow Clay Shirky (@cshirky) is actually Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu). That would be such a strange statement that many people wouldn’t even understand it in order to declare it false. No one says the National Basketball Association means the National Football League them. Or if someone were to say that J.P. Morgan is the same company as Morgan Stanley, we could correct him and explain how they’re similar but not identical.

Some facts about people and organization can be unambiguous some of the time, too. Someone could argue that President Obama’s profession is sports, but we could correct her and explain how it’s actually politics, which maybe sometimes works metaphorically like sports. That doesn’t mean that Obama doesn’t like basketball or that no one will ever talk about him in the context of basketball. There may be more than a few contexts in which many people think it makes little sense to think of him as a politician, like when he’s playing a game of pick-up ball. But I think we can infer pretty well ex ante that it makes lots of sense to think of Obama as a politician when he’s giving a big televised speech, signing legislation, or meeting with foreign leaders. After all, what’s the likelihood that Silvio Berlusconi or Hu Jintao would let himself get schooled on the court? Context isn’t always that dependent.


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