Microformats – the Brighton SWTT discussion

Jeremy Keith: Big S, big W Semantic Web. Where is it? It’s a fantastic vision and great idea: that we have data fidelity, that machines are talking to each other and data can be transferred so easily based on these standards. The sad reality is that there is nothing there yet.

It hasn’t arrived because it’s trying to bite off too much to begin with, and trying to solve any problem that there is. In the meantime, back in the real world people have been working with the web using the lingua franca of the web – which is HTML.

In the past I was abusing HTML. I was using it to lay out pages to describe where stuff should go…but this is not what it was intended for. HTML is a semantic mark up language for marking up hypertext.

The reason why people came up with the idea of the Semantic Web, was the need for a web to describe things. As it turns out HTML is pretty flexible. Since (we all started using) CSS, which is all about presentation, we’ve been able to separate the two and have been able to rediscover HTML for mark up.

That’s what a lot of people are doing now. Structuring HTML documents, not in terms of how should this look, but in terms of what is this? Is it a headline? A paragraph? And using CSS to take care of how it should be laid out.

But what about slightly more complex stuff than that? The idea of micro formats, well, it’s a very lazy concept. It’s about standardising and reusing existing formats, which in most cases means HTML and re-using the little known aspects of HTML that are in fact really powerful. HTML can be made as powerful as XML.

Microformats? It’s about looking at really, really small changes, and seeing what people are doing already and formalising that. So, for example, it’s not about getting them to come to your website to see when you’re next event is. Its about allowing them access to that information in any way they want.

There is a micro format called Hcalendar which uses the ICAL standard which has been around since the 80’s or 90’s. It’s a set of names. Name and location of the event etc, and rather than invent a new standard for exactly the same information what they’ve done is mapped those same names into HTML.

Steal. Steal those letters. When possible, be as lazy as possible and see that clever people have already come up with a standard for this, steal it and turn it into HTML. If you then go to microformats.org, each separate micro format has its own documentation page.

The fundamental difference about micro formats and the lower case semantic web, adding semantics to the existing web, is that its for people first and machines second.

And the problem with upper case Semantic Web is that its always been looked at from the point of view of machines. Microformats are not the ideal data format and they don’t want to be, they don’t want to solve 100% of the problems.

There are some events that you just can’t quite code with Hcal, there are some content details that you can’t quite squeeze in, and that’s ok. If you solve 80% that’s ok. If in a few years time there are hundreds of microformats, microformats will have failed. It’s about the small stuff, spotting patterns, standardising a few of those and the aggregate effect will be huge.

Richard Light: (Consultant) The sensible way to do this would be to have your information semantically marked up in xml.

Jeremy Ottevanger: (Museum of London) it seems that it would be a pretty trivial thing to use hcal.

Mike Lowndes: (Natural History Museum) Should we microformat museum objects?

Mike Ellis: (Science Museum) Yes, I understand it, its simple and its better that what we’ve currently got. We are completely un-granular with the data that we publish. This is better and low impact.

Nick Poole: (MDA) Just one thought about another application of microformats which I originally wanted to do with a top level domain. It was to do with once you put the material out into an online space, how you maintain the link to authority and the fact that it does come from a museum and whether you can use microformats then to identify chunks of as originating from within the museum.

Jeremy Keith: When you put something onto the web you are in a sense letting go. Democracy takes over.

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