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Google DataWiki and Semantic MediaWiki – The WikiWorks Blog

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Google DataWiki and Semantic MediaWiki

The Google DataWiki application was released about a week and a half ago, and it’s gotten some buzz since then, on Twitter and the like. It certainly caught my eye: it bills itself as “a wiki for structured data”, which is also a reasonable description of Semantic MediaWiki. And like Semantic MediaWiki, it’s available both as a hosted solution and as open-source, downloadable code.

Let me first say that, in my opinion, the attention DataWiki is getting seems almost entirely due to the fact that it’s from Google. It looks slick, but there’s currently a major gap in the functionality that I think renders it unusable: you can edit any piece of data, but you can’t see the version history for the changes that have been made; that means that information that’s removed can’t then be restored. It’s debatable whether an application without a version history can even be considered a wiki application at all.

Nevertheless, it is a Google project, which means that, besides the spotlight it gets, there’s a good chance that the software will improve. And as simple as the application is, there are already some nice features to it that the Semantic MediaWiki community could really benefit from looking at.

I think one of the major problems with Semantic MediaWiki and the related extensions is what you could call a lack of “wizards”: there are tools that let you create data structures, but unless you really grasp the concept of semantic properties, as well as a variety of MediaWiki constructs like templates, you really first need to read through the documentation (such as it is) before you can get started.

Contrast that with DataWiki: to create an individual data structure (or what’s referred to as  a “Dataset”, which in turn has a “Format”), you just click on a single link, which in turn takes you to a form, where you get a graphical tool that lets you add fields, which appear like form fields so that you can easily tell what’s going on:

DataWiki field creation GUI

(Microsoft SharePoint has a similar, non-web interface for creating data structures – that might have been the inspiration here.)

Then, once you create the set of fields, everything is right there on the same page – the set of fields, the list of pages created with this data structure (here called “Documents”), a form for adding new documents, and a form for finding existing documents. They all magically appear as soon as the data structure is set up. And, if that weren’t enough, the page also doubles as a web-based API, which lets you query any of the data remotely.

In Semantic MediaWiki, all this same functionality exists, but it would be spread out over many pages – one for the category, one for the template, one or more to display all the data in a table, calendar and/or map, two form pages – one to add data and one to allow form-based querying of the results, the Special:Ask page for remote querying, plus pages for all the semantic properties.

I should note that, despite how cool the interface looks, there are still major limitations – besides the lack of version history, there’s also no way to have fields of different types: no textareas, checkboxes or date inputs.  And the querying and searching is extremely limited. But its simplicity of interface is definitely a model to aspire to.

Personally, I think the way forward for Semantic MediaWiki to able to achieve this kind of ease-of-use is my proposed Semantic Schemas extension, which would let you store everything about the data structure in a single piece of XML on a wiki page. That way you could, in theory, have a nice graphical wizard for both creating and modifying structures, and you could set up more functionality from the beginning without requiring users to explicitly create, say, forms, or table-display pages. But then, I’m biased.

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