Wikidata, open data, and interoperability

This week I’m attending a conference titled Collaborations Workshop 2019, run by the Software Sustainability Institute of the UK. The conference focuses on interoperability, documentation, training and sustainability. I’m blogging my notes from the talks I attend. All credit goes to the presenter, and all mistakes are my own.

Franziska Heine presented a keynote on Wikidata, a Wikimedia project that provides structured data to Wikipedia and other data sets. Franziska is Head of Software & Development at Wikimedia Deutschland.

Franziska’s talk was titled “Wikidata, Interoperability and the Future of Scientific Work“.

The Wikidata project

Franziska said she’s very excited to be here and talk about Wikidata, as it’s such a big part of what her team does. She cares about making Wikipedia, which started 20 years ago, into something that remains meaningful in the future.

Wikidata makes interwiki link semantics so that computers can understand the relationships between the pieces of data. When you ask Siri or Google Assistant a question, the answer comes from Wikidata. Franziska also showed us a map of the world with a data overlay sourced from Wikidata. (I can’t find a link to that specific map, alas.)

Wikidata has more than 20,000 active editors per month. That’s the highest number in the entire Wikimedia movement, surpassing even the number of edits of the English-language Wikipedia.

How Wikidata works

The core of Wikidata is a database of items. Each item describes a concept in the world. Each item has an ID number (“Q number”). Items also have descriptions and language information. In Wikipedia, the content for each language is completely separate. So, you can have the same topic in various languages, each with entirely different content. By contrast, in Wikidata all the languages are properties of the single data item. So, for example, each item has a description, and the description may be available in various languages.

Each item is also linked to all the various Wikipedia instances.

Each item has a number of statements (pieces of information), such as date of birth, place of birth, date of death, and so on. Each statement lists the sources of the information. It is of course possible that different sources may provide conflicting information about a particular statement. For example, there may be different opinions about the date of birth of a person.

Wikidata can be edited by people, but there are also bots that do the updates. The concepts within Wikidata are not built primarily for humans to navigate, but rather for machines to understand. For example, Wikidata is able to give Siri and Google Assistant information in ways that Wikipedia can’t.

But can humans look at the data?

Yes! You can use the Wikidata Query Service to access the data. To get started, grab an example query and then adapt it. The query language is SPARQL.

Franziska showed us some interesting query results:

  • The location of trees grown from seeds that have travelled around the moon. 🙂
  • Natural arches around the world
  • Cause of death of members of noble families

The expanding use of Wikidata

Wikidata was created to help the Wikipedia team maintain their data. Over the last few years, Wikidata has become a useful tool for other Wikimedia projects and even other organisations to manage their own data and metadata. Franziska showed a diagram of a future where various wikis can share and interlink data.

Existing projects:

  • The Sum of all Welsh Literature – a project presented by Jason Evans at the WikiCite Conference 2018.
  • Gwiki: Combining Wikidata with other linked databases by Andra Waagmeester and Dragan Espenschied.

Franziska showed us some graphs from the above projects, to demonstrate the research value that comes out of combining data from different large databases and analysing the results. This is what we’re about, she said: opening up data and making it freely accessible.

How interoperability fits in

Interoperability means mpre than just technical standards. Franziska referred to Mark Zuckerberg’s recent speech about the future of Facebook. Interoperability in his world, she commented, means the ability to communicate with people who are important to you, regardless of which platform they’re on.

Looking at the Gwiki project quoted above: It will connect very different people with each other: different languages, different cultures, different roles (academia, industry, etc). To facilitate this meeting of different worlds, we need to build tools and platforms – this is the social aspect of interoperability.

Instead of independent researchers working in their own worlds, they’ll be able to cooperate across disciplines, provided they have a shared metadata or infrastructure. This is the data aspect of interoperability.

In closing

Scientific knowledge graphs are key, said Franziska. They enable data analysis and power artificial intelligence. Semantic data and linked data are core to innovation and research.

We need to be able to provide data in a way that makes sense to people. This is where the infrastructure fits in. We must provide APIs and other interfaces that make it appealing to use and integrate the data. This is the essential infrastructure for free knowledge, so that research can transcend disciplinary silos, and we can make data and research available to everyone.

Thank you Franziska for a very interesting deep dive into Wikidata, interoperability, and open data.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 1 April 2019, in open standards, technical writing, workshops and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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