In the last week of September, we spent a day with distinguished hosts at the Web Science Institute (WSI) based in the University of Southampton. WSI are recognised as world leaders in research that covers the development and social impact of web technologies. We wanted to talk to them about some of the challenges facing the data and search team as we deliver new data and search services at parliament. It was great to expand the conversation beyond the purely technical aspects to include sociology and political science angles.
The day was very productive with a lot of consensus and it demonstrated how our core approach and strategy is sound. Also, we now have some clear pieces of work where the two parties can collaborate. The day helped expose us to the well-established network of experts that are in academic institutions across the UK (and beyond). Such partnerships will undoubtedly help us reach our goals.
Who we met
We were aware of the Linked Data and Semantic Web expertise at Southampton University. Visiting them had been on the list of activities since the data and search team formed in April this year. I contacted Nic Fair who visited the team to chat about working together. With proposals for this work drafted, the WSI invited us to join them for a day at Southampton to discuss goals and needs in more detail. Michael Smethurst, Samu Lang, Robert Brook and I made the journey to the Highfield Campus where, among other very distinguished guests, we met with:
- Professor Susan Halford - Director of the Web Science Institute
- Professor Les Carr - Co-director of the Web Science Doctoral Training Centre
- Professor Will Jennings - Professor of Political Science and Public Policy
- Dr Nicholas Gibbins – Expert in development of scalable infrastructures for the Semantic Web and the web of Linked Data
- Dr Elena Simperl - Professor of Computer Science in the Web and Internet Science (WAIS) research group
- Chris Gutteridge - System, Information and Web programmer and part of the University of Southampton IT Innovation team
What we talked about
After morning coffee and introductions, we explained our work and the vision of the data and search team. We also talked about our current challenges as we deliver the next iteration of our data service. This was a good, open discussion with frank sharing of opinion, not just focussed on technical elements but also social and political science considerations.
It was clear to me that there was great interest in the work of our team, in fact it was soon pointed out by Susan Halford that it's very rare to get such a number and range of academics together in one room. It was also evident that there was a broad consensus around approach to ontology modelling and technical choices.
Some of the key topics discussed in the morning session were:
- approaches to translating domain model to a formal data model (ontology)
- strategies for managing versions of ontology and respective APIs
- extensibility (thinking about how the model and system can grow over time)
- standardisation – for example alignment to schema.org, W3C standards and Wikidata identities
- how much logic should be put into parliament’s domain model (inference)
- compiling registries (authoritative lists of information you can trust, a canonical source of truth)
- data-driven websites as a key consumer of data and search services (with reference to a new website for parliament)
After lunch the group defined where the University of Southampton would be able to help us (and vice versa). We looked at the types of skills and experience required and also practical ways of working together and sharing information.
What we took away
As a team we took the following from the day:
- was great to get input from sociology and political science academics - something that gave us an even greater understanding of where academics and the public hold interest in parliament’s data
- was great to start the day with a broad discussion. People could talk freely about their areas of interest and expertise and discuss theory, concepts and best practice as opposed to focusing only on completing tasks
- great appreciation of our vision and challenges, with a receptive audience
- great validation of proposed architecture and technology choices
- good cautionary advice against assuming a closed world view in an open world environment
As well as being an extremely engaging series of discussions with a very welcoming and interested group of academics, I felt that the day helped confirm that the data and search team is on the right track. Growing our network of support is already providing benefits. It helps us to clarify our vision when there is some ambiguity, supports our decision making process and puts our foundations for a team-based learning network in place.
One final thank you to Nic Fair for organising the day, arranging for rooms and lunch and for getting such an impressive list of academics together. Thank you to all at University of Southampton for taking the time to talk to us.
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