Note: The following is a synopsis of comments I made to the Publishing and Managing Linked Open Data in Cultural Heritage Institutions session at Museums on the Web 2015. I'm posting them after a follow up conversation with Cristina Pattuelli of the Linked Jazz Project.
What is the business value of Linked Open Data? What is the business case that drives you to support / invest / develop into yet-another-platform and what will it do for your business/library/museum/archive/store-front? Anecdotal, academic and one-off examples aside, why should you care?
A quick answer to these questions In three parts: because a) it promotes and facilitates citation (eg: Marketing), b) creates cost externalization opportunities (eg: Get other people to do your work) and c) it leverages the idiosyncrasies of your business (eg: Your unique selling proposition).
Linked Open Data gives others an automated means to cite your data. At first that does sound like something that an academic would say, but it also means that Linked Open Data gives you a means to market your data.
Linked Open Data publishes machine readable data with long term URLs for everything your customers care about. This gives them a reference to point to that can use to tell you what they like, what they want and what they don’t want. Linked Open Data is the primary building block of a sophisticated sales and marketing analysis system.
It’s less trouble to point to something than to copy it: if you copy it, you have to store it and manage it. Why do you think that so many pinning/referencing applications exist? Linked Open Data also makes that data wrangling a little easier and lowers everyone's costs.
Costs are a major concern for everyone: needs are infinite, resources are limited. Your website (content management system) is something that takes up a lot of resources, why should you spend on yet another communication mechanism?
One of the reason that you spent resources on the website is that creating a solution that can handle everyone’s wants and needs is hard and we all aim for the 80% solution. That leaves the remaining 20% out of luck and resorting to underhanded means like crawling your website, likely to answer a reasonable question that you didn’t think about in the first place.
Linked Open Data lets you publish content without the layout and graphical design costs that go into a web site. It also lets you make your content available without having everyone fighting for that coveted front page on the web site. LOD lets other people build applications to answers questions that you haven’t thought about yet. Case in point: schema.org has been working to standardized vocabulary for boring, but useful, questions like when is your building open to visitors.
Your website has a salad-bar of icons and links to social media tools, bookmarks and shared content. You bore the cost of finding out about those applications and integrating them with your website. Of course, the popularity of these shift over time, older ones disappear and new ones are created. Why not push that work back on the social tools developers by letting them make a search / discovery interface?
Linked Open Data gives other people the opportunity to do work that will be of benefit to you without requiring you to bare the costs of doing so. Your current web analytics will work at whatever granularity of content that you publish and who knows, maybe that poorly accessioned print will be a masterpiece that was thought lost. Or maybe that bag of obsolete bearings hidden deep in your inventory system is desperately needed by someone else around the world.
Parts of your business are unique, others aren't. There are hundreds of thousands of museums / widgets shops / locations world wide just like you and yet you have something that makes people want to come to see you because you have what they want. Maybe it's a Rembrandt (which one?), a replacement servo motor with the right mounting holes for your 3D printer or decent coffee in an otherwise bleak place. Who knows.
When it comes to software, the common wisdom has been to standardize on commercially available packages unless you really need to roll your own. For many years experts would recommend that you should change the way you do business to the way the software package worked since this was cheaper. Linked Open Data allows you to do both through ontologies that support common standards while using your own definitions. And even if the standards you want to use are incompatible, you can still work with them.
Human beings are self-interested and both suppliers and customers will always insist that you use the appropriate data standard: theirs. The ability to translate across different viewpoints, and in many cases the ability to agree-to-disagree, is a business advantage even before you retain the ability to model your business in the way that it actually happens.
Common LOD Objections
I'd like to address some objections raised during a few talks at the conference, I regret that this is from memory as I neglected to write down the names of the people that brought these issues up.
1. We've been talking about this for 10 years and it still hasn't happened.
I'd rather say that we have been talking about this for about 50 years now.
Many people have tried, the Xanadu project is one of the better known projects, but it has taken this long to get the underlying nuts and bolts working. That includes the Internet, the World Wide Web, XML, basic schema's for Gregorian dates, hypertext, web ontology languages, machine readable time zones, reasoners marginally better integrated than Prolog, and enough raw data to label everything in natural languages. Linked Open Data is built on all of this.
It's been a hell of a trip if you were working on technology in the past 50 years and it's happening now.
2. People can find all of this out on my website, why don't they look there?
We have the hubris to think that people care about us when they really only care about our product. Sometimes, the product actually is the website, but not always. To recap an earlier example, if someone cares about Rembrandt they will want to know what works of Rembrandt you have on display, where the works are and when they can see them. The fact that it happens to be the prestigious Janvrin Island Museum of Fine Art is a nice-to-have. Does it matter if they find out through the website, someone's lovingly curated list of Rembrandt works, or a flyer by the tourism office?
There are a lot of websites out there. In a world where information relevance is key, every little bit that clearly explains the "unique selling proposition" is an edge.
3. We can't give away the intellectual property that is in our data.
Information has value in a context; it seems counter-productive to hide the fact that your business has things that someone might want. Linked Open Data also implies Linked Data - perhaps you don't want to publicly release all of the information within your databases. Perhaps some of it was acquired by subscription to another catalog. If you are unable to publicly release the basic holdings / catalog of your offering (Name, ID Number, Image), you might have a larger problem to worry about than Linked Open Data. Keep in mind Section a) above, the network effects alone increase the value of your own data. The simple act of publishing a URL and a machine readable label goes a long way in making your value obvious to the rest of the market.
4. There are errors in our data
Yes. There are errors in everyone's data. As the amount of data that you own grows, so does the statistical probability that something will go wrong and that's before a human being is involved in the process. You organization will likely never have the resources needed to check up on the quality of your entire dataset. As embarrassing as it may be, releasing some of your data in the open will likely result in them pointing out the mistakes in your data without them being asked to do so (See b). Their motivation will range from altruism to being vile, either way you will get the benefits of having the errors located.
5. People will steal my data
Yes. People will steal your data. They will crawl your web site. They will use your images as their desktop wall paper. They will cut and paste your website text into their own blog and claim it as their own. They will print your images on posters and sell them on the street corner. Linked Open Data carries the same risks of data theft as having a website but creates new opportunities for revenue, I'd say that's a win.