How to build a semantic web application in a day

Article dated: 13 June 2011

A timeline of plant evolution for undergraduate bioscientists; interactive maps showing how the worlds media respond to natural disasters; course gazetteers linking case studies to readings.

These all appear to be useful learning tools, but which would take a lot of effort to construct. However, the team behind the ESRC/EPSRC Ensemble project, Semantic Technologies for the Enhancement of Case Based Learning, demonstrated how easily this could be achieved – even without any real technical skills - at an interactive workshop run on 14 April 2011 in Manchester.


The Ensemble project, led by Professor Patrick Carmichael of the Liverpool John Moores University, works with teachers and students to help utilise semantic web technologies and real-life data in teaching through case-based learning. For example, in plant biology one might work through digital representations of plant lifecycles, or in dance, where creatively analysing digital past dance performances can help learning.

The project is exploring how novel Semantic Interoperability of Metadata and Information in unLike Environments (SIMILE) semantic web tools can help students explore and present data in very visual ways such as: interactive maps and timelines, web 'front-ends' to databases of mixed content (texts, images, video, etc.), and search tools linking local content and data from across the web.

Participants were invited to bring some data (in spreadsheet or other structured form), or have access to sources of data with which they wanted to work (Google docs, online image albums, databases, open government data).

With this data they went on to learn how to build a web application by rapid prototyping with the Exhibit Web Application Framework and Ensemble project tools. Even those without any web editing or programming skills were able to turn their raw spreadsheet data into an attractive, interactive Google map.

Over the past three years, Louise Corti from the UK Data Archive has been co-investigator on the Ensemble Project. She believes that these innovative and 'low barrier' methods to get students to interact with data - in a fun way - is a critical first step in getting them to become data users of the future.

"It's wonderful to see students glow at their efforts in turning a table of numbers into colourful displays and browsable web pages. It really does bring data to life for them almost immediately. It also makes numbers so much more meaningful and attractive to deal with."

The UK Data Archive is a partner on the Ensemble project with responsibilities for: input into data sources, metadata standards and data repository systems.