The Semantic Web. You may heard it bandied about as 'the next big thing' but never really understood exactly what the termed encompassed. It's hardly surprising; its development is, like so many things online, in a constant state of flux. When World Wide Web Consortium director, Sir Tim Berners-Lee coined the term in 1999, the concepts were purely abstract.
And until recently, the idea of a World Wide Web in which information and services are defined — hence 'semantic' — has remained something Web developers aspire to rather than a reality.
That is starting to change. Earlier this year, the ABC launched three new socially networked digital radio websites — ABC Dig Music, ABC Jazz and ABC Country — which aggregate content from several different sources, including MusicBrainz, YouTube, Last.fm and Wikipedia. It is not only a new approach for a content-rich organisation such as the ABC, it illustrates the possibilities of Semantic Web technology. The artists pages on the site, which form the core functionality, automatically pull in content from around the Web.
It's a seemingly radical idea for an editorially-driven organisation. But as ABC Multiplatform technical and strategic projects manager, Fergus Pitt, explained at the Web Directions South conference in Sydney, it fits well within the ABC charter of providing innovative services that contribute to the national identity.
"The ABC charter is a great thing about working at ABC," he said. "These directions are at the core of everything we do. And it's about finding a balance between wide appeal and specialisation, which means you can deviate from mainstream. That contributes to the vitality and creativity of the ABC."
The relatively small project team wanted to provide a means of accessing relevant information so users could find background info on artists, as well as providing a platform for communities. The roles, Pitt admitted, were not that different to ABC radio's core competencies. But there were also major points of differentiation, such as the Internet's visual aspects.
"We were kicking off new services and it takes a fair bit of practice for an organisation to think about new ways of doing things — there's a certain amount of momentum", he said. "Part of that process was asking: what key characteristics of the online environment in radio?"
The internet provides a "huge cavernous resource of music, videos and information around music of all kinds". Albums, song titles, picture, videos — it's all there, often served by an extremely engaged, stable user base who have already built the resources the ABC required. Pitt and his team decided to put the Internet adage, 'do you what you do best and link to the rest' into action.
"There was no point trying to build a similar artist section. The best thing we could do was to help organise and present relevant bits of resources, from well known to those known only by aficionados. What has changed is the blow touch is really being applied. It is no longer good enough to have best content in the broadcast area — the whole world is now in your market.
"We're big and we're solid but the environment we are in is more powerful."
So the project team identified sources the information sources that it thought its users would value, looking specifically for those which publish content with good application programming interfaces (APIs) and licences. The sites therefore include photos from Discogs, biography information from Wikipedia, YouTube video listings, ABC content, web links, discographies from MusicBranz, Last.Fm related artists, songs played on radio and social media functionality. And they broke with 70 years of ABC broadcasting tradition along the way.
"By and large Australians value what the ABC has done and want us to do more. There is unarguably a demand for us to stream all 54 of the local stations and there is always scope for putting in more resources. There is a demand for us to make traditional, linear, non interactive media.
"It can be quite hard to justify doing a new thing when there is an existing practice that would benefit from more resources. But with launch of new brands, there was an opportunity to rethink what we do. The ABC was designed in an era of media scarcity and we are now in an era of media plenty. We need to treat the citizens of the web very much as partners."
The next step? Pitt hopes that over time the ABC can begin to feed its content and activity back out to the wider Web.