Web Science: A year and a half after SDP2008, we’re a network of ideas!

Matthew Weber, SDP2008: ‘Webscience’ alumnus, visited the OII recently as part of the Web Science Exchange Programme. We asked him for his thoughts on the OII’s Summer Doctoral Programme, about his research on transformation in the news industry, and how this relates to ‘Web Science’ more generally. He writes:

I have watched the concept of a semantic Web, and subsequently Web Science, develop for a number of years but only recently have I felt a strong affinity to this academic area. In 2008 I attended the OII’s Summer Doctoral Program (SDP) in Oxford, UK; the friendships formed at SDP, as well as the network of research contacts that I established, have helped guide my research and my career in the years since.

In my own work, I study the transformation of the news industry, and have spent the past few years looking at how traditional organizations for partnerships and alliances online. My work is based in communication, but draws on knowledge from computer science, business and sociology.

This is one of the core tenets of Web Science: developing a better understanding of the social and organizational structures of the Internet through the integration of multiple bodies of research. Web Science is a growing area of academic research and is poised to emerge as the major research initiative driving integrated studies of structure and interaction on the Web.

The SDP 2008 brought together a multidisciplinary group of colleagues for a two-week intensive workshop on Web Science. Today there is a clearly articulated agenda for Web Science research and a foundational set of publications, but the 2008 cohort was the first collection of doctoral students brought together to conceptualize what Web Science research is.

I continue to keep in touch with many of my colleagues; Bertil Hatt, from the University of Paris, is always happy to point out new trends and technologies that we should be looking at (and his work on social networks and decision processes continues to challenge). Alice Tiara highlights the socio-culture implications of online interactions. Monica Bulger studies Internet technology and its effect on learning comprehension and literacy. Marcos Caceres and Oshani Seneviratne are brilliant computer scientists, both working on various aspects of Semantic Web development. And Sonny Zulhuda keeps us safe with his work on cyber security.

And that’s just a handful. Not one of these students is a communication PhD student; I was one of three comm PhDs at the 2008 SDP. But this diversity is part of what makes the SDP such a great program for developing research and strengthening dissertations.

As part of the ’08 SDP the EPSRC sponsored ten students (myself included) as participants in the ‘Networks for Web Science’ Student Exchange Programme, which allowed each of us to extend our visits abroad and spend additional time visiting Web Science research centers. I chose to spend an additional 8 weeks in the 2008-2009 academic year at the Oxford Internet Institute.

My time at the OII helped me to develop my dissertation framework, and allowed me to build additional partnerships with the faculty at the OII, but also with colleagues at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. These partnerships have led to the submission of an NSF-SSHRC-JISC grant application and hopefully many more to follow.

Today I’m proud to associate my work with the Web Science agenda; for news media research the concept of interrelated networked data (a core component of the Web Science vision) is increasingly relevant. Increasingly, I am seeing semantic data intersecting with news media. The New York Times recently started to release its vocabulary and articles as interlinked, searchable, researchable data.

Across the pond, the BBC’s political experiment, Democracy X, is one of the most advanced, semantically developed Web sites running. The video on this site is transcribed real time and semantically tagged. What does that mean? If you search for a certain iteam – say ‘MP cash laws,’ Democracy X will pull up news articles, related links, and video clips cued to the exact moment the search term was mentioned.

How does this change the way in which users read news and engage with information? It’s currently unclear, but I plan to find out. For now, I have a dissertation to finish, but Web Science is calling: I’m looking forward to many years studying the development of this research agenda – with the help of my SDP colleagues, of course.

Tim Berners-Lee leading a seminar on the Semantic Web (SDP2008: Web Science). The SDP facilitates deep discussion of substantive and methodological research issues, helping students to frame their research questions.

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