Linked Data is an Ecosystem of Portal Abstractions

In an episode of the CoRecursive podcast1, Sam Ritchie uses the phrase “portal abstraction” to describe how the use of a particular term can open a portal – a gateway – to a world of relevant prior art.

He discusses issues in analytics. One issue is distributing summative calculations over data both as batches and in real-time, specialized for “big” and “fast” data, respectively. A second, compounding issue is dealing with data that may be missing. The term that helped Sam deal with the first issue is the semigroup from abstract algebra. The term that helped him deal with the second issue is the monoid.

Suppose Sam had stuck with a bespoke term like “Addable” to define a code interface to objects that could be added together associatively by calling a required “add” method of the objects, and that perhaps knew about a special “identity” value 0 that could represent missing data without affecting the outcome of a sum. The term “Addable” isn’t specialized enough to yield a treasure trove of related terms and relevant prior art that would unambiguously apply to the use and extension of Sam’s bespoke interface.

Transitioning to less ambiguous terms like semigroup and monoid led Sam to read research papers of certain relevance and to discovering useful ideas for his work, ideas like probabilistic data structures and the hyperloglog algorithm.

In natural language, terms are often overloaded – words have many meanings. The vocabulary of abstract algebra has many terms that have no significant competing meanings among English speakers, and so they indeed are fertile candidates for portal abstraction. More generally, though, disambiguation among word and phrase meanings would be needed for similar power.

Linked data use unambiguous URIs to denote terms. Collections of such terms and their relations, also constructed and machine-readable as linked data, constitute the variety of ontologies offered by domain specialists. Linked data is an ecosystem of portal abstractions.