The many faces and phases of the Semantic Spider

Jordan, Katy and Rimpilainen, Sanna (2010). The many faces and phases of the Semantic Spider. In: EASST 2010 conference, 2-4 Sep 2010, Trento, Italy.


This paper tells a story about a hybrid object known as the ‘Semantic Spider’ that was born out of need to illustrate the concept of semantic web within Ensemble [1]; a diverse, interdisciplinary research and development project between education and computer sciences. The purpose of the project is to study case based learning across disciplines in higher education and to develop semantic web applications for supporting that learning.
The semantic web is the concept of an internet where all data is stored in machine-readable formats [2], which offers many new possibilities in exploring and reasoning across heterogeneous data sources and types. What began as a simply-drawn diagram depicting the technological complexities required to achieve this vision, has evolved into a complex, multiple, unstable and continually evolving object. This diagram, known informally within the team as the ‘Semantic Spider’, plays multiple and varied roles within the team: it is being used by the team not only for operationalising aspects of the semantic web in their research and development, but also for enacting these activities in multi-disciplinary settings. It also acts as a thinking tool for the project members in making sense of the complex research settings and data, as well as with helping to theorize the design processes. The diagram is powerful in informing and engaging research participants in the work of the project, helping them to understand the complexities of the project work, and to envisage the possibilities offered by the technology, among others.
The different versions of the Spider are designed purposefully for use in varied contexts, but these also evolve through chance discussions. As an object, it has no original but a lot of copies; it plays a varied role in work of the project, influencing and being influenced by the research activities. It is a conceptual-material-human hybrid. The project work is still on-going for another year. What happens to the Spider after the project is finished remains to be seen - will it be forgotten and become redundant, or will it become an object like Tim Berner-Lee's iconic Layer cake [3] which we started off with?
In this paper we will first trace the different phases of the Spider, and account for how it has evolved and been constructed for different purposes and settings. We will then explore the different faces the Spider shows in order to work in different contexts. The story of this diagram exemplifies the multiple realities of a research project and its practices.

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