SemTech 2008: Nova Spivack (Radar Networks) – "Experience from the Cutting Edge of the Semantic Market"

Nova Spivack of Radar Networks gave a keynote talk at the 2008 Semantic Technologies Conference this morning.

He started off by giving some background to Twine. Twine is a service that lets you share what you know. When Nova pitched the original idea for the underlying platform to VCs in 2003, he was told that it was a technology in search of a problem. Thanks to DARPA and SRI, Nova had carried out some research in this field for a few years. The intial proposal to VCs was to develop next-generation personal assistants based on the Semantic Web. After the initial knock back, Nova went out again to raise funding, and Paul Allen stepped in as the first outside angel with Vulcan Capital.

Radar started working on the first commercial version of the underlying platform and also began work on the Twine application. The platform underneath Twine is not something they’ve talked about much so far, and they will discuss it (not at this conference) in the Fall. Radar also want to allow non-Semantic Web savvy people to build applications that use the Semantic Web without doing any programming.

Twine was announced last October at the Web 2.0 Summit. They began the invite-only beta soon after that. The focus of Twine is interests. It’s a different type of social network. Facebook is often used for managing your relationships, LinkedIn for your career, and Twine is for your interests. He called it “interest networking” as opposed to social networking.

With Twine, you can share knowledge, track interests with feeds, carry out information management in groups or communities, build or participate in communities around your interests, and collaborate with others. The key activities are organise, share and discover.

Twine allows you to find things that might be of interest to you based on what you are doing. The key “secret sauce” is that everything in Twine is generated from an ontology. The entire site – user interface elements, sidebar, navbar, buttons, etc. – come from an application ontology.

Similarly, the data is modelled on an ontology. Twine isn’t limited to these ontologies. Radar are beginning the process of bringing in other ontologies and using them in Twine. Later, they will allow people to make their own ontologies (e.g. to express domain specific stuff). In the long run, the community infrastructure will allow people to have a more extensible infrastructure.

Twine does natural language processing on text, mainly providing auto tagging with semantic capabilities. It has an underlying ontology with a million instances of thousands of concepts to generate these tags (right now, they are exposing just some of these). Radar are also looking at statistical analyses or clustering of related content, more of which we will see in the Fall (mainly, which people, items and interests are related to each other). For example, “here are bunch of things that are all about movies you like”. Twine uses machine learning to create these clusters.

Twine search also has semantic capabilities. You can filter bookmarks by the companies they are related to, or filter people by the places they are from. Underneath Twine, they have also done a lot of work on scaling.

Consumer prime-time launch of Twine is slated for the Fall. A good few bugs still have to be addressed, but Nova says there has been a “wonderful flowering of participation and friendships” in Twine. Many networks of like-minded people with common interests are being formed, and it is very interesting to see this take place. Nova himself has 500 contacts in Twine, and just 300 in Facebook. He now uses it as his main news source. David Lewis (the top Twiner) has 1000+ contacts in Twine. David Lewis (also at the conference) has nearly 1500 contacts in Twine.

Twine wants to bring semantics to the masses, and is not just aiming at Semantic Web researchers: it has to be mainstream. The main common thread in feedback received is that the interface needs to be simplified more. (Nova says he shaved his head as part of this new simpler interface :-)) Someone who knows nothing about structured data or auto tagging should be able to figure out in a few minutes or even seconds how to use it. It takes a few days at the moment to get a sense of the value, but Nova says it can be very addictive when you get into it.

Individuals are the first market, even if you are on your own and don’t have any friends 🙂 It is even more valuable if you are connected to other people, if you join groups, giving a richer network effect. The main value proposition is that you can keep track of things you like, people you know, and capturing knowledge you think is important.

Motley Fool recently talked about Google killers. Twine is not one, according to Nova, as it is not trying to index the entire Web. Twine is about the information that you think is important, not everything available. Twine also pulls in related things (e.g. from links in an e-mail), capturing information around the information that you bring in.

When groups start using Twine, collective intelligence starts to take place (by leveraging other people who are researching stuff, finding things, testing, commenting, etc.). It’s a type of communal knowledge base similar to other things like Wikia or Freebase. However, unlike many public communal sites, in Twine more than half of the data and activities are private (60%). Therefore privacy and permission control is very important, and it goes deep into the Twine data.

Initially Radar had their own triple store, an LGPL one from the CALO project. They found that it didn’t scale towards web-scale applications, and it didn’t have the levels of transaction control you’d need from an enterprise application. They decided to go for a SQL database (PostgreSQL) with WebDAV. However, relational databases weren’t optimised for the “shape” of data that they were putting into it, so it needed to be tweaked. They’ve had no performance issues so far, but they may move to a federated model next year. Twine uses an eight-element tuple store (subject-predicate-object, provenance, time stamp, confidence value, and other statistics about the triple or item itself). They can do predicate inferencing across statements, access control, etc. The platform is all written in Java, and Twine then sits on top of that.

Next he talked about the Twine beta status. There have been 20000 beta testers in last 30 days, 9000 twines created, 150000 items added, 60% of twines are private, and new features are being added every four weeks (in point releases). Some of the feature requests they’ve received include import capabilities, interoperability with other apps, and the ability to use other ontologies.

Twine will stay in invite beta for the summer. Soon, they will take off the password door to the public twines, so that they will all be visible to search engines. Radar will be SEO-ing the content automatically, so you will see more “walk-ins” after that happens. They will still be able to control who gets an account, but stuff will be publicly accessible.

In the Fall, Radar will open it so that anyone can open an account. You will be able to really customise Twine, to author and develop rich semantic content. Nova says that Twine will then be a step beyond blogs and wikis when it happens (but he can’t say much about the new stuff for now).

Next, there were some questions.

Q: The first one was about privacy. What if you add something and then later you decide that you want to delete it – is it really deleted or does Twine keep it around?

A: Nova answered that currently, it is not really deleted, it goes into a non-visible triple. But they will be doing that (really deleting it) soon.

Q: What is the approach to interoperability with Twine? What other types of semantic applications will Twine work with?

A: Today, Twine works with e-mail (in / out), RSS (get feeds out), and browsers (e.g. for bookmarking). There have been lots of requests for interoperability with mindmaps, various databases, enterprise applications, etc., so Radar are giving it a lot of thought. Twine has to provide APIs. They have a REST and a SPARQL API: they are not fully ready just yet, but by end of the year Twine will have a usable REST API. Unfortunately, Radar can’t handle the long tail of requests for features, there’s just too much, but an API will help people to make their own add-ons.

Then there’s the ontology level. You will be able to get the data about you or related to you out of Twine in RDF. You should also be able to get stuff out using other ontologies that are common, e.g. using FOAF, SIOC (yay!), or Dublin Core.

They are also looking at specific adaptors that they need to build. For example, this includes importers for, Digg, desktop bookmark files, Outlook contacts, and a bunch of others. They will be rolling out some of these in the Fall timeframe. Also, there may be a demand for Lotus Notes interoperability – or Exchange – possibly. Radar may actually look at other semantic applications like Freebase that they could interoperate with first. They have already hardcoded in some interoperability with Amazon for example.

Q: When Radar went to VCs and were turned down, was Twine part of the pitch? (For the second time around with Paul Allen, the questioner presumed that Nova did have it as part of the pitch.)

A: In 2003, Radar had a desktop-based semantic tool called “Personal Radar”. It was basically a Java-based P2P “Twine” using RDF. It had lots of eye candy and visualisations. The VCs said “semantic what?” and it was extremely hard to explain P2P, Semantic Web, RDF, and knowledge sharing to them. He said the VCs are mainly interested in when you are going to make money for them. But most of his pitch was blue sky, with no business plan, demonstrating a piece of technology, and pushing the fact that he knows people will need it. Paul Allen was more visionary, and he really believes adding structure to the Web is inevitable. He was willing to take a bet before they were in business. Then they went on to get Series A funding. The VCs said it was too early, but they eventually got it. Series B wasn’t as hard, and it fell into place in a matter of weeks, so it was a good round.

Even though there’s a lot of talk about the Semantic Web in the press and on the Web, most VCs are still figuring it out now and they are interested in making just one bet in the space. The main thing you need to avoid is being a platform without having any applications to show. It has to be compelling, where you can envisage users using them. Valley VCs are jaded about platforms.

Q: As one imports information from various places, what exactly is there in Twine that will prevent a person having to merge any duplicate objects?

A: Nova said there is limited duplication detection at the moment, but this will be improved in a few months. Most people submit similar bookmarks and it is reasonably straightforward to identify these, e.g. when the same item is arrived at through different paths on a website and has different URLs.

Q: Ivan Herman from the W3C asked if Radar were considering leveraging the linked open data community?

A: Nova said that DBpedia would be one of those main sources of data that they want to integrate with – the FOAF-scape, the SIOC-o-sphere, and DBpedia. Wikipedia URIs are already being used to identify tags, and this is something they will leverage.

Q: How can copyright be managed in Twine?

A: Nova said that it’s thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It provides a safe harbour if you cannot reasonably prevent against anything and everything being uploaded (and are unaware of it). Twine’s user agreement says please do not add other people’s copyright material. Fair use is okay, and if you share something copyrighted, it is better to have a blurb with a link to the main content. Therefore, Twine is using the same procedure as in other UGC sites.

Q: How are Radar going to make money?

A: Twine is focused on advertising as the first revenue stream. Twine has semantic profile of users and groups, so it can understand their interests very well. Twine will start to show sponsored content or ads in Twine based on these interests. If something is extremely relevant to your interests, then it is almost like content (even if it is sponsored). They will be pilot testing this advertising soon.

Q: Have Radar been approached by Google, Facebook, as the value proposition for Twine is very interesting?

A: Nova said they are not trying to compete with Facebook (right now!), but rather they are trying to find the magic formula that will work for Twine right now. Facebook has a lot of fluffy stuff: vampires, weird games, etc. Nova said he’d prefer to spin the bottle with a real person. Twine will focus on professional people who have a stronger need for a particular interest, doing things technically that are outside the scope of what they are doing at the moment.

Q: Why does Twine use tuple storage: why is it not using a quad?

A: Nova said it’s faster in their system, so for performance reasons they decided to avoid reification.

(I will also post my notes from Eric Miller’s keynote in the next day or three.)


10 thoughts on “SemTech 2008: Nova Spivack (Radar Networks) – "Experience from the Cutting Edge of the Semantic Market"”

  1. John, Nova did NOT say that I was the top Twinerian. This fluctuates on a daily basis, although I have been in the top slot longer than anyone else (including Nova) in the history of the private beta.

    What he did say was that I have the most connections. I have about 1,500 connections, Nova has roughly 500 connections; we have the most connections on Twine.

    BTW, I feel that personal rankings are a bad idea. What should be encouraged is the building of properties on Twine, e.g., my “Apps: On Semantic Web & Related Applications”, “Futures”, “China”, “Public Policy”, “Google”, and “Twine Technologies” twines (to name several) are all in the top 100. (I have 11 in the top 100, the most among all 25,000+ Twinerians).


    – David Scott Lewis

  2. here’s to Nova….amazing progress he has made to take a complex vision into reality as demonstrated by Twine’s ability to offer me a front row seat at Semtech, from both a public and private feedback perspective.


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