First look at Freebase

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I got the chance to get a close look at Freebase (thanks, Robert!). And I must say -- I'm impressed. Sure, the system is still not ready, and you notice small glitches happening here and there, but that's not what I was looking for. What I really wanted to understand is the idea behind the system, how it works -- and, since it was mentioned together with Semantic MediaWiki one or twice, I wanted to see how the systems compare.

So, now here are my first impressions. I will sure play more around with the system!

Freebase is a databse with a flexible schema and a very user friendly web front end. The data in the database is offered via an API, so that information from Freebase can be included in external applications. The web front end looks nice, is intuitive for simple things, and works for the not so simple things. In the background you basically have a huge graph, and the user surfs from node to node. Everything can be interconnected with named links, called properties. Individuals are called topics. Every topic can have a multitude of types: Arnold Schwarzenegger is of type politician, person, actor, and more. Every such type has a number of associated properties, that can either point to a value, another topic, or a compound value (that's their solution for n-ary relations, it's basically an intermediate node). So the type politician adds the party, the office, etc. to Arnold, actor adds movies, person adds the family relationships and dates of birth and death (I felt existentially challenged after I created my user page, the system created a page of me inside freebase, and there I had to deal with the system asking me for my date of death).

It is easy to see that types are crucial for the system to work. Are they the right types to be used? Do they cover the right things? Are they interconnected well? How do the types play together? A set of types and their properties form a domain, like actor, movie, director, etc. forming the domain "film", or album, track, musician, band forming the domain "music". A domain is being administrated by a group of users who care about that domain, and they decide on the properties and types. You can easily see ontology engineering par excellence going on here, done in a collaborative fashion.

Everyone can create new types, but in the beginning they belong to your personal domain. You may still use them as you like, and others as well. If your types, or your domain, turns out to be of interest, it may become promoted as being a common domain. Obviously, since they are still alpha, there is not yet too much experience with how this works out with the community, but time will tell.

Unsurprising I am also very happy that Metaweb's Jamie Taylor will give an invited talk at the CKC2007 workshop in Banff in May.

The API is based on JSON, and offers a powerful query language to get the knowledge you need out of Freebase. The description is so good that I bet it will find almost immediate uptake. That's one of the things the Semantic Web community, including myself, did not yet manage to do too well: selling it to the hackers. Look at this API description for how it is done! Reading it I wanted to start hacking right away. They also provide a few nice "featured" applications, like the Freebase movie game. I guess you can play it even without a freebase account. It's fun, and it shows how to reuse the knowledge from Freebase. And they did some good tutorial movies.

So, what are the differences to Semantic MediaWiki? Well, there are quite a lot. First, Semantic MediaWiki is totally open source, Metaweb, the system Freebase runs on, seems not to be. Well, if you ask me, Metaweb (also the name of the company) will probably want to sell MetaWeb to companies. And if you ask me again, these companies will make a great deal, because this may replace many current databases and many problems people have with them due to their rigid structure. So it may be a good idea to keep the source closed. On the web, since Freebase is free, only a tiny amount of users will care that the source of Metaweb is not free, anyway.

But now, on the content side: Semantic MediaWiki is a wiki that has some features to structure the wiki content with a flexible, collaboratively editable vocabulary. Metaweb is a database with a flexible, collaboratively editable schema. Semantic MediaWiki allows to extend the vocabulary easier than Metaweb (just type a new relation), Metaweb on the other hand enables a much easier instantiation of the schema because of its form based user interface and autocompletion. Metaweb is about structured data, even though the structure is flexible and changing. Semantic MediaWiki is about unstructured data, that can be enhanced with some structure between blobs of unstructured data, basically, text. Metaweb is actually much closer to a wiki like OntoWiki. Notice the name similarity of the domains: (Metaweb) and (OntoWiki).

The query language that Metaweb brings along, MQL, seems to be almost exactly as powerful as the query language in Semantic MediaWiki. Our design has been driven by usability and scalability, and it seems that both arrived at basically the same conclusions. Just a funny coincidence? The query languages are both quite weaker than SPARQL.

One last difference is that Semantic MediaWiki is fully standards based. We export all data in RDF and OWL. Standard-compliant tools can simply load our data, and there are tons of tools who can work with it, and numerous libraries in dozens of programming languages. Metaweb? No standard. A completely new vocabulary, a completely new API, but beautifully described. But due to the many similarities to Semantic Web standards, I would be surprised if there wasn't a mapping to RDF/OWL even before Freebase goes fully public. For all who know Semantic Web or Semantic MediaWiki, I tried to create a little dictionary of Semantic Web terms.

All in all, I am looking forward to see Freebase fully deployed! This is the most exciting Web thingy 2007 until now, and after Yahoo! pipes, and that was a tough one to beat.

Originally published on Semantic Nodix

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