2012-03-15

LOV stories, Part 1 : The Commons

It's now been about one year of work with my colleague Pierre-Yves Vandenbussche on the Linked Open Vocabularies (LOV) project. I've already mentioned it lately here on this blog and in various conversations on Google+. This is the first on a series of posts where I will elaborate a little more about the general vision and philosophy of this project, lessons learned so far, and explore possible roadmap towards its sustainable future. 
The philosophy of LOV in a nutshell is the Philosophy of the Commons.
This is actually consubstantial with the Semantic Web, and with the Web, and before the Web to the whole history of human knowledge. Languages belongs to the commons, as well as Science at large (or it should). Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects, Creative Commons, Science Commons, to name a few, belong to the same tradition. Certainly less known than the latter, although a bit older than the Web itself, the International Association for the Study of the Commons has published last year Vocabularies of Commons, a deep collaborative work about the multiple aspects of the commons (natural, social, linguistic, cultural). Several chapters are specific to India since the majority of contributors work are native of and/or working in this country, but the lesson is quite universal. The Digital Library of the Commons sums it up nicely : 
The commons is a general term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest. Studies on the commons include the information commons with issues about public knowledge, the public domain, open science, and the free exchange of ideas -- all issues at the core of a direct democracy. 
The position I'm comforted in with such a background is that managing vocabularies along the commons principles is not only a fair, morally and socially rewarding way to go, but it's actually the only sustainable way. A vocabulary cannot be a product in the sense of an isolated piece of knowledge technology which could be developed, sold and bought following life cycle aiming at short-term profit, fulfilling some transient needs of today and being trashed tomorrow. A vocabulary is an element in a rich ecosystem which is growing organically, a node in a web of durable dependencies. It is both concurrent and dependent of other elements in the landscape. Like in natural commons, some are conspicuous and unmistakeable, other are more discrete but altogether useful. Like in a well-maintained commons garden, everyone can feel personally responsible for the good shape of this specific tree, bush, or water source, and everyone enjoys the fruits of all. And diversity is key to the global health and wealth.

Visiting the LOV gardens with this in mind, you can discover an organic ecosystem with living and more or less healthy elements, large or small, known or obscure, recent or old, changing or stable, as well as a ground of dead leaves, branches and old trunks waiting to be re-cycled. Imagine behind the network of formal objects the network of trust linking their creators. Look at vocabularies relying the most on other ones, and look carefully for people behind them. They are working in the spirit of the commons, and what they build is bound to live and flourish. We'll look further in the next post at whom those "good gardeners" are, and how they work together. On the other hand, closed vocabularies built out of fear and lack of trust in the "not invented here" are bound either to die out on forgotten shelves of terminated projects, or to lock data in proprietary semantic silos. 

I hear people crying what do we need this mess? Let's all use schema.org and be happy for ever! Sure schema.org is useful, let it grow and flourish as another (big) tree in the garden, but could it grow to the point where its shade would make the rest of the commons die out? I don't think so. Time will tell, but if schema.org grows too big it will become unusable, falling in the known pitfalls of unique thought, unique hierarchy of categories, unmanageable size etc. Remember Yahoo! Directory, dmoz.org and the like? We'll hear soon people fuss and rant about why their extension has not been accepted. So the diversity of vocabularies commons is not endangered yet ...

To be continued in "LOV stories, Part 2 : Gatekeepers and Gardeners". Stay tuned.

[Please note that all posts here being from now on forwarded to G+, follow-up is welcome there rather than here. Like many people I found out the dynamics of conversation on G+ to be a good complement to the more "static" blog publication]