Archive for the 'semantic web' Category

How the health system should work

I decided to blog this here since its a bit involved for a comment on a politics blog. Suffice to say I’ve been argumentatively agreeing with LPUK.This is also the second time, I’ve advocated the semantic web to solve market place failure. There is no particular reason for this, its just that modern life seems to gel with it, or something, and once you are familiar with it you can’t help but apply it when thinking about IT issues. It’s also a very open liberal system of working.

I’m going to get really specific here, because that’s the the best way to avoid being vague:

I’d choose to use Linked Data expressed in RDF+N3 to represent information about my health, and something not unlike FOAF+SSL for authentication, since I’d like to be able to use more than one service provider at the same time so it needs to be a format with native features that enable integration of data. RDF happens to also resemble EAV/CR which is a medical design pattern. The data would be stored wherever, whenever, by any number of arbitrarily chosen organisations and would be brought together ad-hoc via a tools in the Linked Data tradition. Integration tools would also be selected from an open market for doing exactly that job. If I chose to use one provider for every medical service obviously I wouldn’t need this extra bit, but having that allows a more diverse market, more privacy. Importantly, emphasising data integration as a feature leaves scope for organisations to add integration features to whatever system they already have, which includes retaining human procedures speeding up the evolution of this ecosystem.

If I were someone with specific conditions likely to need it then I’d carry a card designed to permit rapid access at A&E departments. I’d buy these cards from a similar marketplace of providers, but probably all of them would be eventually forced to catch up with the state of the art circa 1994 and support content negotiation such that once the URL is accessed whatever the doctor needs is delivered to them over HTTP. All the standard authentication options for HTTP, including FOAF+SSL would be available and may or may not be used in deciding to serve up the data. Imposing a standard protocol and format here wouldn’t be too bad, but the state needed bother compatibility with A&E is the core feature.

The method of formatting the card would be decided by an industry organised standards body, but need only be a URI. There is nothing scary now about URIs! It will contain a very long random number – too long to bother guessing it – and after first use, this URI can only be accessed for a few days. The server will know its serving emergency data and can take care of procedure matters, like waking up your mom, if that’s what you want.

The system is essentially a Summary Care Record resource but hosted by the person I chose to host it, and containing whatever I decided to put on it. If I remain in a coma, the care record will name someone to come sort out access to data, probably a relative or a staffer from one of the many organisations I might buy services or insurance from. Possibly the expired record will still provide that data, just in case.

XML, having at least the ability to be unambiguous and machine verified would be my 2nd choice of format. Automated integration is not a feature, but there is a good selection of tools and an experienced workforce. Stuff like SOAP might make things harder – too many variables – but a proper REST implementation would evolve as a norm (Linked Data is RESTful). With content negotiation the syntax doesn’t actually matter that much, because providers of emergency care cards will be incentivised to run really good software to handle syntax issues, as would the ad-hoc integration providers used in every other circumstance. Obviously then, data integration features  are the deciding factor for consumers, and whatever data-integration techniques work best will rise to the top in an open market.

That said, if people want to squirt pigments through feathers onto bits of reconstituted tree to depict vague and inconsistently applied words and move the resulting “information” around using horse and cart, then they should be free to do that. Want to use something properly stunted like JSON? Sure, but those organisations doing so  should also be perfectly at liberty to loose customers to competitors doing it properly.

Insurance providers would insure against the cost of transferring data out of systems when providers go bust and will set premiums according to how well the chosen providers operate, taking into account things like security, off-site back-up procedures as well as the quality of implementation details. If I choose to rely on paper records, I pay a bit more. If I am foolish enough to use a record-keeping service that uses  JSON then I will pay a lot more – obviously ;-)

Abody of shared knowledge will be created about the quality of each company – known as its “reputation”,  remember them? – that will include horror stories about data coming out wrong and  user interfaces being good, bad or ugly just as search engines or price comparison sites have reputation today for the same features. Obviously consumers won’t ask “is that SOAP or REST?”, or “do you have a comprehensive OWL ontology for health records?” but they’ll get to know the consequences of those technology options. Just like with search engines there will be default choices that people make, and times when you want something different, or more complex to suit your needs, so no-one will be greatly  inconvenienced.

Anyone too stupid to want to own their own records could just be handed the existing dead tree words or digital records on CD and told to keep them safe or suffer their fate. A kinder alternative would be to apply the kind of opt out system advocated for education (not the one for health, but I don’t feel strongly on that) in The Plan, to the NHS until such point that all the pathetic losers that can’t be bothered to think about staying alive end up dead and the NHS is mercy slain in 2060.

It goes without saying, that side issues like access to anonymous data by academics will also be subject to market forces and people will vote with wallets.

TopQuadrant Webinar on querying and processing RDF

This webinar is interesting, not because it explains RDF exactly(though it touches on that), but because it shows the main differences between querying RDF and querying relational data in a way that won’t scare anyone away.

It should be stressed that his is one vendor’s vision and one vendor’s tool, but the speaker does lay down the boundaries between standard and vendor behaviours quite well, though its worth picking up “LET” as a non-standard keyword. Anyway, its quite a nice tool!

What novices should look for:

  • A neat explanation of RDF triples in visual terms.
  • On-the-fly invention of new properties for a type without planning ahead or doing any prep work.
  • WHERE clauses without a FROM clause – i.e. querying completely unstructured data.

If you are already sold on this RDF thing, then there is also a nice demonstration of using SPARQL for ETL functionality about half way through, which is more than cool. In addition, the RDF visualisation style where the graph is incrementally revealed on-demand is a nice paradigm for viewing graph data.

Social graph visualisations

More links (maybe I need delicious or somthing)

via a swig chat log describing theses as coming from experimental work with FOAF.

Seeing Links

Dendrons, Pisces and the CosmosI’m currently engaged by a small systems integrations and – oddly enough, you might think -  web development company. That is to say, I’m working with a company that does web development, creative work and systems integration. I’m working on the systems integration side of things doing architecture and proofs of concept for an event driven integration platform focused around XML processing. This has involved a bit of rules based logic, arguing about defining schema upfront or letting the customer do it using RDF (it’s easy but its complicated) vs using relational databases (its complicated but its easy), a bit of coding with the DOM API, reviewing some  graph orientated process definition languages (if only to prove we didn’t want one) and some thought around long running business processes involving customers in an e-commerce context (which proved we actually did), and straying into architectural issues like whether to incorporate an ESB and what the hell an ESB is anyway.

This collection of abstract issues allows me and my colleagues to spend some time thinking in the abstract, and researching topics and increasingly seeing previously obscure links between things. For example, the fact that a web design company has ended up doing systems integration using a web language like XML  looks like a link, though actually its a complete coincidence which I only just saw. Other weird stuff comes up too, like the fact that the web page of a tool we’re reviewing was two clicks away from a definition of something very like what we’re  building, though we only came across the definition of it (and even  a related book) three months after we started to write proofs of concept. My guess is that it’ll be a useful tool.

Then came a less conceptually loaded link, in fact it was just a plain HTML link of the “if you liked that then you’ll like this” variety that lead me to an excellent InfoQ presentation on what REST is. If you’ve troubled yourself to read any of the links embedded in this article, or even if you’re familiar with some of the terms already then you’ll realise that this presentation actually sits right in the middle of the jumble touching on SOA, good web site design, and the importance of URIs as business identifiers. Of course good business identifiers are important in any system especially relational databases, almost certainly SOAs, and definately in Linked Data and in RDF and were a big topic at Linked Data Planet where I went last year so I’m seeing links stretching that way too.

Do you ever get a feeling somewhere in the back of your head of neurons rewiring themselves? You might just dismiss it as a headache but there is a particularly satisfying ache I get sometimes which is a bit like the aches the day after some strenuous excecise (another weird link) and its a feeling I get when concepts are shifting about and getting connected together in my mind. Well I have that feeling now, and the shapes being formed back there in the etched lines of synapses are pretty interesting, but are too big for one post…

I’ve been watching BBC Parliament

I’ve been watching BBC Parliament coverage of a debate about Parliament’s relationship with the people and new technology such as blogs, twitter, and PR methods such as issuing pamphlets, inviting school children into visitors centres and education centres etc.The PR type stuff still has a feel of dreary pointlessness about it, but I suppose it may work on the brighter or more enthusiastic kids, but the tech stuff was in some cases just as dreary.

They are a pre-web generation embracing this new gadget because its a new gadget rather than because it will work or because its the best way forward.  Eventually there were a few bits of good news, but in general I was discouraged about how much emphasis there was on well publicised gizmos of debatable value and not a lot of substance.

Then, a grey haired old Tory stood up and delivered this corker:

My noble friend has introduced a subject of extraordinary importance, much greater than we are giving it credit for today. My noble friend Lord Marlesford reminded us that Parliament was invented to control the Government. Before that, we had chaos and blood-letting. It actually cost a great deal of blood to build this institution that we now occupy so placidly. It is what stands between the British people and a reversion to some unsatisfactory, undemocratic and, quite possibly, violent existence. It is foolish to think that mere stasis will preserve it.

The line between government and Parliament has been so blurred since the reign of George I that many of the public do not understood the function of Parliament, because they see government functioning inside it. There are, I think, 140 Members of the Government and PPSs occupying Benches in the House of Commons. They are inside the machine invented to control them, into which none could have put a foot before the reign of George I, who did not speak English and had to have somebody here to do his work for him. We are looking at a precious thing. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who has not yet returned to his place, pointed out, the product is very good: it is liberty.

Now, if the British people do not understand that, and if Parliament becomes devalued, they will not stand to protect Parliament because they will not see it as protecting themselves. Therefore, we have a real duty to show the people how the power of Parliament has been eroded, is being eroded and will, if future Governments of all political colours have their way, continue to be eroded, because Parliaments are a thorn in the flesh of Governments. If the public are to understand that, they must understand what we are doing.

Absolutely nothing at all to do with the web or new technology at all – just an old fashioned desire to focus on what really matters and do it properly.

He continued talking, and demonstrated what I mean, with this proposal:

When I was a parliamentary candidate and started looking at these things, I well remember the furore of excitement if a Minister ill advisedly let a government policy out of the bag, deliberately or accidentally, outside the premises of his appropriate Chamber in Parliament. … [If] a Minister in the … House of Commons, were to make a policy statement outside it, as soon as that was known he was hauled back by the Speaker to face an emergency debate. He got a headline, but not the one that he wanted ….

What happens now, almost without comment and as a matter of routine, is that almost all government policies—or all but those of the hugest importance—are made outside the House, by the Government, to an audience invited by them… As a result, the only comments that the media hear come from Ministers… That means that not only are the voices of the enraged Opposition, of whatever party, not heard but the voices of the disenchanted Back-Benchers of the government party are also silenced. So what the public get is a picture that bears no relation to Parliament at all and nothing gets reported from these two Chambers.

…. Would it not be a simple matter for the House of Commons to take this matter back into its hands and to require the Government to release all news about their business that affects the electorate inside the Chamber? That is where the news would then be, as would the reporters, who would hear what Members of Parliament thought about it. That would be the news, and it would be broadcast on the traditional media, at least. That way, at no extra expense to anyone, Parliament would begin to come back to being the focal point of public interest, which is where it must be if this sovereign and free state of ours is to maintain its freedom in the years to come.

Simplicity is priceless, which is why another old Tory gets the prize for being the most forward thinking peer with this piece of good news:

We can do far more to utilise the internet. Bills are now published in XML format, so anyone can use the material to tag particular clauses and subsections. That takes us some way towards meeting the aims of bodies like mySociety. We should be able to build on this capacity so that Bills posted on the website are indexed in order to enable users to search text and sign up for more specific alerts.

Of course, if he’d said RDFa I’d have had kittens, but he scattered a few more precious stones around:

The Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, …  advocated the greater use of informal Keeling schedules, where a Bill amends an Act, enabling people to see how the original sections are amended by the Bill. The Modernisation Committee of the other place has also recommended exploring the possibility of publishing on the web the text of Bills as amended in Committee, with text that is added or deleted shown through the use of different colours.

I understand thought has also been given to interleaving Bills and Explanatory Notes, so that relevant material from the notes appears on the page facing the clauses referred to. That not only makes it easier to grasp the purpose of a clause, but may also encourage those who write the Explanatory Notes to ensure that a note on a clause does not simply repeat the provisions of the clause. I suspect it will be as helpful to parliamentarians as to members of the public…. These are examples of the sort of thing we should be pursuing.

Now there, emphasised, is an example of somebody understanding that presenting information differently can influence the people writing the information and really getting it in a detailed way and turning it into a simple practical proposal. Probably the Constitution and Modernisation Committees took days to trash those out, consulting all manner of experts, but that Lord Norton is citing them and giving them appropriate emphasis is very encouraging.

Less encouraging are the words of Lord Brabazon of Tara the Chairman of Committees who says:

In addition, Bills are already available in XML format—whatever that is—which allows individual clauses and subsections to be tagged, as mySociety wants.

The noble lord clearly does not recognise the power that you get as a computer programmer from using a standard syntax. Perhaps he doesn’t drive a car since its pretty obvious that standardising fuels, fuel caps, and pumps and other technical details in cars have enabled us to have a proliferation of petrol stations to our great benefit.

The reasons this is the case are much the same between the two fields and are not exactly complicated so it’s discouraging that Lord Brabazon regards it as an appropriate place to make self-deprecating jokes.  Using XML to describe the activities of Parliament is a way to expand the community of people able to get involved with presenting the data in new and interesting ways. It will allow parties, think tanks, charities and search engine companies as well as an army of enthusiastic voters to help the public stay informed about Parliament.

In short, publishing XML is the cheapest possible way he can achieve the goals they agreed on during the debate. Not only bills but all Parliamentary data should be published in XML, and its should be reliable consistent good quality XML to enable the widest range of contributors to get involved in the widest range of Parliamentary activities.

Peer to Peer Web Search technology

A mailing list message on the topic of Microsoft Live’s search privacy prompted me to take another look at peer to peer web search applications, and I discovered two – YaCy and Faroo – both promise to protect your anonymity while searching, but paradoxically both will index the web using your click stream.

There are some interesting concepts at work there, in particular YaCy’s reverse word index coupled with downloadable Linked Open Data such as DBPedia, WordNet could form a powerful combination as long as the privacy protection was sound.