Seeing sights around Beijing

After the WWW2008 conference ended me and guys stayed on in Beijing for a couple of days in order to take in some of the local sites. Armed with our camera’s and a subway map, Rob, Paul and Myself managed to find our way to Beijing Zoo and saw an assortment of wonderful animals – but for me it was the Pandas, that I had really wanted to see.

We also a section of The Great Wall in Ba Da Ling. The sheer immensity of this 6000 km structure is breathtaking. You can’t help but feel small and insignificant as you walk along the wall and and take in the view around you:

We also visited The Temple of Heaven, which is situated near the center of Beijing. There was something wonderfully serene about the temple, that made you feel as though you’d stepped from the hustle and bustle of one world into the magical calm of another. It’s a site rich with tradition and as a temple it is beautiful to behold.

We also walked through Tiananmen Square. In some ways it felt surreal, as we walked through it taking pictures, I couldn’t help but recall as a teenager seeing images on television of students demonstrating and vividly remember seeing images of tanks bearing down on demonstrators. Yet as I looked around there were thousands of people, mostly chinese, milling around the square, there were also many tourists everyone seemed cheerful, it was a far cry from those images on TV:

We tried to visit The forbidden city, but unfortunately by the time we arrived there were hundreds of people queuing to buy tickets to get in and because it would have taken at least an hour to queue there we opted not to given we only had a few hours left. So we decided to walk around the grounds outside The Forbidden city and take some pictures:

Following that we finally visited The Summer Palace, which for me was the highlight of the trip. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. We took a boat out on the lake and took some pictures of the palace:

I loved the visit to China. I wish I could think of a bad thing to say but I really can’t – everyone we met was polite, approachable and kind; the sites we saw were amazing; the food was great!. I must confess there was a huge difference between the China I experienced and the China that is reported in the media here in the UK – which is the real China? I honestly can’t say, but I will cherish my memories of the place. As usual all my photo’s are on flickr, but I should warn you that I have uploaded roughly six hundred of them (out of the 1500 I took!). To make things easier if you click on any of the photos above they’ll show you pictures tagged with that specific location. Or if your prefer you can view the whole lot here.

You can also see Rob’s pictures here and you can see Chris’ pictures here.

WWW2008 – Day Four

The day got off to a very slow start I wasn’t feeling very well so I missed the keynote. I made my way to the Dev Track and got there in time for the first session. The opening talk was by Giovanni Tummarello on Semantic Web Pipes which seemed like a great idea. Semantic Web Pipes are analagous to the Yahoo! Pipes framework but differ in that the Yahoo framework uses RSS and the item lists in RSS do not lend themselves to the graph based modeling that RDF has. Giovanni explained that with Semantic Web Pipes you can fetch, mix and process RDF files published on the Web because the output of a Pipe is an HTTP retrievable RDF model, simple pipes can also work as inputs to more complex Pipes.

There were a couple of other memorable talks one by Rajat Agarwalla on Scrabulous, in which he explained how and why they developed the game., and what they experienced having to scale up very rapidly to satisfy the phenomenal demand they had. The one thing Rajat said that resonated deeply with me was (im paraphrasing here because I can’t fully remember it) “if you build something you love you’ll make money eventually, but if you build something just for money then you won’t“. This sentiment echoes what Confucius once said:

"Choose a job that you love and you will never
     have to work a day in your life"
              - Confucious

The other talk that both Rob and I wanted to listen to was by the Sebastian Kruk on MarcOnt Mediation Services. He told us that they had completely rewritten the MarcOnt portal and it should now be available, but it wasn’t clear to me that they were planning to do anything with Marc21 or that they had engaged with any of the other people working in this area, which was disappointing.

There were other talks during the day, after which we all got carted off to the evening Banquet at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. Our colleague Jingye had told us how rare it was for anyone to be invited to dine there and that it was a very special venue – and he was right! My only regret was that I didn’t take my camera or phone with me. We had been told earlier in the day that camera’s weren’t allowed and that phones with camera’s might not be allowed either, so we decided to leave them in our hotel rooms. When we got there it was apparent many others had brought theirs with them and no-one was stopping them taking pictures – so I was kicking myself all evening.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave his keynote before the banquet and shared with us his hopes for the WWW, many of which seemed to be centered around the Semantic Web and the Linked Data movement, both of which we at Talis are heavily involved in. Tim talked about the need to get better at communicating our ideas and to engage with each other more., about breaking down barriers and get better at communicating with each other across both the physical and social/political borders and barriers that exist. Paul has a done great writeup of the keynote over on ZDNet, so I won’t dwell on it too much – suffice to say that I thought it was great keynote, and quite inspirational in some ways.

After the keynote the banquet and the evenings entertainment got under way. The food was great as were the performances, particularly one by the Peking Opera. We all had a great time. It was a very memorable evening.

WWW2008 – Day Three

The full WWW2008 Conference got under way yesterday with a Opening Ceremony that involved music and dancing and fancy lights. There were some introductions from key dignatories, before the Plenary Keynote by Google’s Dr Kai-Fu Lee. He talked about Cloud Computing and explained how it liberates the user from having to remember where data is, how it enables the user to access information from anywhere, and how cloud computing makes services faster and more powerful by leveraging what could be an infinite amount of information and massively scalable infrastructure. He explained at a high level how Google uses thousands of small cheap servers rather than fewer large expensive servers in order to create a massive network of commodity servers that form its cloud, he explained how replication works and how every piece of information is replicated to at least three different servers in this cloud. we also learned a little about how Google’s Translate service works and saw some examples of how and why its better than many of the alternatives out there.

After the keynote I went to to the Panel discussion on The Future of Online Social Interactions: What to Expect in 2020. The discussion was about how Online social interactions will evolve in the next decade – I didn’t get a lot out of this discussion it was hard take bits of it seriously, I found the thought that one might review someones rating, before allowing them to come over and sleep on one’s couch just a little far fetched … or am I just too cynical?

After lunch I attended the W3C Track, in which Tom would be giving his presentation on Linking Open Data. Tom presented this with Chris Bizer and they both did a great job conveying both the importance of opening up data and then linking data. Following Tom’s talk Raphael Troncy gave a short presentation on Semantic Multimedia, most of which I had already seen earlier in the week during his tutorial session on the same subject, nevertheless it was a good presentation. The final talk in the session was given by Huajun Chen on Semantic Web Development in China. This was a really useful talk that gave us an insight and a sense of how much Semantic Web research is going on in China – which was encouraging to hear and also very impressive.

Following the afternoon break I went to the Panel Discussion on WWW in China. This proved to be very useful, not only did we get a sense of the kind of WWW research going on in China we get a very real sense of how much academics from the various universities represented by the panelists want to engage with their colleagues outside of China to further their research. Some of the specific research discussed included Spam Filtering, Search Clustering, Modelling and Mining the emergent web etc. After the talk I got a chance to talk briefly with one of the panelists, Professor Xiaoming Li (pictured), from Peking University and suggested to him that the data he and his colleagues where capturing and mining from the web might be ideally suited to being modelled in RDF and Linked to other sources which he seemed to think was an interesting idea. I offered our help which he seemed to welcome 🙂

Since this was the final session of the day we headed back to the hotel. Rob suggested that he wanted to skip going to the evening Reception in favour of exploring Beijing on foot and taking some pictures. Chris and Paul decided that they wanted to go to the reception and meet up with Tom ( and make sure he came out with us for a bite to eat 😉 ) so I decided to go on walkabout with Rob. Turned out to be a great decision – I haven’t had so much fun in ages.

I don’t know how far we walked but we were walking for a couple of hours, we explored the area around the new National Stadium, and whilst it is still a building site no one said anything to us in fact everyone was really polite and very welcoming. I have traveled a great deal in my life and it’s very rare that I’m out and about anywhere and don’t feel that I need to be alert in fact I’m usually always aware of my safety. Yet, yesterday, as we wandered around with our Camera’s in our hands, snapping pictures of anything and everything at dusk and into the night, I never once felt unsafe or felt the slightest bit of anxiety – I loved that. I haven’t had so much fun in very long time. I also learned a lot about my buddy Rob, he was behaving like a school kid at times, climbing up onto pallets of bricks, or onto a crane, to take pictures, willing to walk to anyone and say hello, At one point late into the evening we stopped near the stadium and Rob was trying to ask a bunch of young police officers if they could give him permission to get onto something higher to take a picture. Obviously they didn’t understand english and he doesn’t speak a word of Chinese and yet we were all laughing as they tried to translate what he was saying.
It was good to see him laughing so much …sometimes I think Rob thinks too much about things, we are both very similar in that respect, we can become hugely introspective … but I know we all need to let our hair down from time to time and just have fun … and we did! As some of the pictures show.

Later in the evening Paul, Chris, Tom, Denny and Gloria met up with the two of us and we all headed to a restaurant that Rob and I had passed on our walk that we thought looked nice, it turned out to be a wonderful place and we all had a wonderful meal, before heading back to the hotel. Rob and I did walk back over to the Stadium to take some more pictures and this is when he got permission to climb up onto one of the cranes on the building site to take a few pictures.

All in all I had a great time at the conference yesterday and one of the most memorable evenings I have had in a very long time exploring a strange new city with a great friend.

I have just uploaded just under 200 more pictures to my flickr account here:

WWW2008: Day 2 – LDOW2008 Workshop

We spent all of yesterday in the Linked Data on the Web Workshop. It was quite an intense day with 27 different presentations, most of which were paper presentations in addition to a few demo’s. It was an excellent workshop so full credit to everyone who helped organise the event.

The workshop began with some short introductions by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Chris Bizer and our very own Tom Heath. Both Chris and Tom did a great job chairing the workshop during the day and deserve credit for their efforts. After the introductions we went straight into presentations. I won’t try to describe every talk because there were so many and all of them were very good. I just want to talk about some of the highlights for me during the workshop.

Linked data is the Semantic Web done as it should be, the Web
done as it should be.
       Sir Tim Berners-Lee

For me this single statement by Tim, as part of his introduction to the workshop, captures the importance of the whole Linked Data movement. The vision of the Semantic Web cannot come to fruition unless we have linked data, as Tim pointed out back in 2006:

The Semantic Web isn't just about putting data on the web. 
It is about making links, so that a person or machine can explore 
the web of data.  With linked data, when you have some of it, you 
can find other, related, data.

Unsurprisingly every one of the presentations in the workshop aimed to describe technologies, processes, techniques and examples of linking data together semantically, to help make this vision a reality. There are many obstacles to being able to do this, some of these obstacles are technical but others are social and legal (You can view the workshop schedule here and download all of the papers), and we need to understand them all.

We Talisian’s did a couple of presentations during the workshop. I was originally supposed to present the Semantic Marc paper with Rob, but we only finished the slides the night before and decided it would be easier if he presented it without an interruption to change speakers. This proved to be the right decision since he did an excellent job, and we got some great feedback from many of the attendees.

Paul also did a presentation on Open Data Commons, his presentation was, to my mind, was far more important because I don’t believe the Linked Data community has fully understood why there is a need to license data. His presentation led to an interesting discussion and I was surprised to see that there were some people who did not understand why this was such and important issue. From what I recall the canon of their argument was that we have thousands of mashups out there re-using and re-mixing data at the moment so why do we need a Open Data Commons? RDF Book Mashup was cited as an example. What amused me was that it’s widely accepted that the RDF Book Mashup violates Amazon’s Terms of Use. Those arguing against the need for Open Data Commons were seemingly confusing that with the fact that so far Amazon hadn’t chose to do anything about RDF Book Mashup. This misses a fundamental point, Amazon doesn’t necessarily care about what people do with mashups because these are not commercial products. If someone took RDF Book Mashup and used to deliver a rival service to Amazon, I suspect that Amazon would act, and they would be well within their right to do so. Open Data Commons provides protection for Data Providers by giving them a mechanism, like the various OS Licenses did for the Open Source Community, to state under what terms people can use their data. Reciprocally it provides protection for those consuming the data since we know the terms under which the data has been made available to us. This notion that just because existing data providers haven’t sought remedial action against those that abuse their terms of service, we don’t have to worry about anything and don’t need the protection that Open Data Commons provides is naive at best and at worst it could cause the kind of damage that would make it very difficult to create this web of linked data. I guess the linked data community needs to mature in the same way the Open Source community did and also the Creative Commons community did.

One of the major themes that across in many of the talks, which was also a central theme in our paper, is how to handle disambiguation. There were a number of presentations that touched upon this issue most memorably the presentations by Alexander Passant on The Meaning of Tags, and Affraz Jaffri’ presentation on Uri Disambiguation.

I was also impressed by Jun Zhao presentation on Provenance and Linked Data in Biological Datawebs, I was fortunate enough to visit HP Labs last year and see Graham Klyne, one of her colleagues, present some of their work and it’s great to see how well they are doing.

I was also impressed by some of the work that Christian Becker has been doing with Chris Bizer on DBPedia Mobile a location centric DBPedia client application that uses a really cool Fresnal based Linked Data browser. Peter Coetzee’s work on SPARQPlug was also very impressive, and I’ve made a mental note to have a play with it as soon as I get back to the UK.

I could carry on and on but I think it’s sufficient to say it really was a wonderfully useful workshop, and I thoroughly recommend reading all of the papers that were presented.

Oh and I have just realised that Rob has posted up his thoughts about the workshop here.

WWW2008 Day One

Yesterday was our first full day in Beijing, the morning was spent transferring our things from one hotel to the actual conference hotel, by the time we were checked in, it was time for lunch. After lunch we attended a couple of the tutorials. I’ll be posting up details of the tutorials and talks I attend during the conference over on our Nodalities blog

I’ve also uploaded the first set of photos I’ve taken to my flickr account which I have organised into this set, enjoy!.

Got to Beijing, more or less in one piece

It’s 10:30am on Monday 21st April local time here in Beijing as I sit in a hotel room and reflect on the last 36 hours. It feels like its been a long and arduous journey my whole body seems to be aching which is unusual.

The journey began in Birmingham on Saturday evening, my brother and uncle dropped me off at Birmingham International Airport at about 6pm. I checked in with no difficulty at all and gave Rob a quick call to let him know I had arrived and was going to proceed through security into the departure lounge. As I walked towards to the security checks I ran into Tom who had just arrived at the Airport and told him where the check in counter was and that I’d be with Rob in the departure lounge. Tom walked off to get checked in and I went and queued to get through the security checks.

That’s where the fun and games began. Once I was clear of the metal detectors and had my hand luggage, I was stopped by a police officer who took me to one side to ask me a few questions. He asked me where I was going, to which I replied China via Dubai. He asked me why I was going there, to which I replied For a Conference, I’m presenting a paper on the Semantic Web. Oh man was that a mistake. I spent the next twenty minutes filling out embarkation cards, which ominously had Terrorist Act written at the bottom of them in tiny font. I was repeatedly asked if my company had given me any travel advice from the Foreign Office? whether I was some kind of expert in my field? What is the Semantic Web? Whether I thought China was a good place to be having a conference? Whether I had ever been approached by Chinese Officials? Did my Company routinely send people to China? … it went on and on …

I was left trying to explain The Semantic Web to someone who admitted he only kind of had an idea of what eBay and Google was. At this point I was getting visibly shaken, having been stood there for over twenty minutes. I simply didn’t know whether the officer believed a single word I was saying. It occurred to me that I had my Letter of Invitation from the Conference Organisers which I handed to the Officer, and then explained that the Conference was an annual event and each year the venue changed. I remember thinking, cool now he know’s why I’m going – the letter kind of proves that, now I have to convince him I’m actually presenting. So, rather comically, I reached into my laptop bag and pulled out a copy of Nodalities Magazine, which contains not only an article I’ve written but also picture of me, and intimates that I along with some of my colleagues would be presenting at the annual WWW2008 conference. This seemed to convince him a little more, or at least I thought it did until he started asking all the same questions all over again.

At this point I semi lost my temper. I played the only card I had left, and told him to phone Inspector Williams who heads up security at the airport and ask him to vouch for me. On reflection I hate the fact that it came to that, but I was becoming rather frightened, and trust me … Orange is not a good color on me, and I was starting to have visions of me wearing an orange jump suit.

At that point the officer took my letter of invitation, my passport and disappeared behind a security screen. I was left waiting anxiously. It was at that point that Rob wondered back into the security check area. He had been waiting in the departure lounge for me for almost half an hour and had become worried that I had not appeared, so wondered back in to see where I had disappeared to.

He saw me standing at the police check counter and walked over and asked me if I was ok. I explained what was happening and he made a joke about it, which was good actually because it calmed me down. Anyway Rob stood their with me, which was a wonderful gesture, and even as I sit here and write this I’m still touched by it. The officer returned with my things and then apologised for detaining me, and said he hoped he hadn’t caused any offence, and told me I could go. At this point it’s important to point out that whilst I didn’t enjoy the experience one bit, the officer in question was impeccably polite.

Rob and I went and sat in the departure lounge and it took me a few moments to compose myself. In fact it took a bit longer than that, the entire episode played in my mind for much of the evening. It’s sad but it’s the world we live in.

Rob and I waited around for Tom, who eventually arrived through security and the we walked through to one of the private departure lounges that I had access to, and I signed the guys in as my guests and we sat and relaxed and waited for Chris. The flight was delayed a little while so comfort of the private lounge with free snacks and drinks gave us a chance to natter and me a chance to gather my equilibrium a part of me was still seething but also rather shaken by events. Tom repeatedly asked me if I was ok as did Chris, whilst Rob repeatedly made fun of me … which was probably exactly what I needed … thanks buddy!

We finally boarded  about 9:30, I was sitting next to Rob for the flight so played chess, chatted, and I think we both managed to get some sleep. We arrived in Dubai seven hours later for a four hour stop over. We got off the plane but Tom got separated from us. Rob, Chris and myself got through the Connecting Flights security bit but there was no sign of Tom anywhere and we started to worry a little bit that he had stayed  on the bus might have ended up in immigration control. It was at that point Paul found us and we explained how we had lost Tom … but not for long he turned up and explained the bus had stopped at a different entrance.

We had a quick  look around at some of the electronic gadgets on sale and then walked back to one of the private lounges at the airport, I signed the guys in and we had chilled in there for the next few hours. Had some wonderful food, drink, chatted, took photos, some of us even took the opportunity to get showered as we waited for our connecting flight.

This flight was also approx seven hours long, I spent this leg of the journey sitting next to Chris. We also played chess and talked a lot about work and ideas we had. Paul joined us for a while as did Rob and we had a great time just chatting about work, ideas, the conference, etc. We even managed to take some photos on the plane.

We arrived in Beijing airport at about 11pm local time and since none of us had flown here before we had no idea what to expect. We were all amazed at the sheer spectacle of the terminal. It is an amazing looking building not to mention absolutely huge … we had to catch a train from immigration to where we collected our baggage … that’s how huge!

We found our way out of the airport and ended up waiting in the longest queue ever for a taxi. Eventually a guy in a toyota hiace wondered over to us and offered us his services so we accepted and arrived at the Beijing Continental Hotel at 2am – only to discover that the had given our rooms away. We were all getting a little annoyed but eventually the hotel agreed to put us up in another hotel for the night and collect us in the morning – in fact I’m sitting in the taxi waiting for the others to check out as I write this.

All in all it feels great to be in China, I think I’ve managed to put the emotions of the earlier parts of this journey behind me. Now I just want to look forward to the conference and having the opportunity to speak to and interact with some amazing people.

Off to Beijing for WWW2008

Am very excited! Am flying out to Beijing for WWW2008 this evening with fellow Talisians: Tom, Rob and Chris. We are meeting with our colleague Paul in Dubai where we stop over briefly on Sunday, and then its on to China!

It’s going to be a great conference. We are all presenting in the Linked Data Workshop which looks really interesting this year. As long as we have decent internet access I’ll be uploading pictures to my flickr account and blogging here as well as over on our Nodalities blog.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee Talks with Talis about the Semantic Web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, often credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web and also Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, recently chatted with my colleague Paul Miller as part of our Talking with Talis Podcast Series.

You can listen to the podcast here, or download the mp3 from here. Alternatively you can read the full transcript here.

It’s a excellent podcast which I’ll recommend to anyone who is interested in understanding the Semantic Web. It’s a far ranging discussion in which Tim talks about a number of issues ranging from the importance of Linked Data to the perceived Readiness of the Semantic Web and it’s mainstream adoption.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the podcast and in some ways it felt good to get the sense that as an organisation we are actually building the sorts of technologies that will help bring Tim’s vision to life.

I think… we’ve got all the pieces to be able to go ahead and do pretty much everything… you should be able to implement a huge amount of the dream, we should be able to get huge benefits from interoperability using what we’ve got. So, people are realizing it’s time to just go do it.

I totally agree with Tim, at Talis we have done exactly that, we have invested a lot of time and effort into building our Semantic Web Platform which is currently underpinning many of our next generation products. And allowing us to collaborate with others on some pretty interesting projects. The Semantic Web is fast becoming a reality and it feels pretty awesome riding this particular wave at the moment.

I’m also pretty excited at the moment Rob, Tom, Paul, Me and Chris will all be attending the LinkedData Workshop at WWW2008 next month in Beijing. Rob and I will be presenting our paper – which should be great fun.

So if any of you are out there and want to find out more about us and what we are doing come along and have a chat!