The terminology used to describe the semantic web is often hard to penetrate, but the best way to understand it is to view the technology as an attempt to link up various clouds of information: flight times, weather forecasts, social network bookmarks and news stories are all delivered in different formats and readable only by different applications.
The semantic web is an engineering solution that will allow this data to be meshed and available for use by machines globally.
Various organizations (spearheaded by the World Wide Web Consortium or W3C) have developed semantic tools and languages to enable this integration to take place, but nobody has offered a really coherent vision about what the early semantic web will look like - until recently that is.
In the past year companies and organizations have launched polished products and web tools that have helped us grasp how the internet may really look in five years.
Theory is being transformed into practical application. You are probably already using semantic technology without realizing it and many of these developments have profound implications for our work as journalists.
While the complete picture of the semantic web may be some way off, here we describe some of the tools and semantic applications that may help us make the most of the web today and make full use of the semantic web tomorrow.
Projects that are central to the semantic web project include: OpenID, Friend of a Friend (FOAF) and Semantically-Interlinked Online Communities (SIOC).
OpenID is a free way to use a single digital identity to log in to your favourite websites. Nearly 10,000 sites support this technology including Technorati and Dopplr.
FOAF and SIOC are ground-breaking initiatives that give online communities the ability to share data in ways that computers across the globe can understand.
FOAF gives us the chance to, for example, use our profile data from one site to create our identity on another. It also may mean that we will be able to make better use of our information from various sites by meshing it together in one identity.
SIOC is creating the language necessary to allow online community sites to do the same. Social networks, discussion groups and bloggers currently function like islands where the information in their databases is isolated. SIOC will enable community sites to merge their data.
A practical consequence of SIOC might be that you can do a search in Facebook using the term 'bog-snorkelling' and gets results back from within that site, but also blog results from Technorati, comments from Flickr albums and YouTube videos.
"In the semantic web, it is not just people who are connected together in some meaningful way, but documents, events, places, hobbies, pictures, you name it! And it is the commercial applications that exploit these connections that are now becoming interesting," John Breslin, the founder of the SIOC
The development of the semantic web will make a big impact beyond online: "A lot of the focus from the public or media regarding the semantic web has been in relation to search.
"But it's not solely about finding those relevant objects (people, places, etc) through 'Google killers', and it's not only about the internet (despite being called web 3.0), but it's also about providing ways to allow systems (on the desktop, or the web, or media servers - whatever) to inter-operate with each other as well," says Breslin, who is also a member of the W3C Advisory Committee, lecturer at the National University of Ireland and an associate researcher on the semantic web at the
Quite soon your RSS reader may automatically scan blog posts and news stories for names that are also in your contacts file. One application may soon give you the option of sending them messages via Twitter, email or Facebook.
Like others close to the developments, John Breslin sees semantic web applications becoming genuinely mainstream.
To find out more about applications for the semantic web and their use for journalists read 'Web 3.0: what it means for journalists (part 2)'. Read Colin's full interview with John Breslin at this link.