Tim Berners-Lee and Group of Boston Web Gurus Leading New MIT Class to Get Linked Data to Market

6/16/10Follow @xconomy

The usual sequence for high-tech entrepreneurs is to study, get a degree, get a job, then start a company and build a product. But a star-studded team of instructors for Linked Data Ventures, a graduate-level class premiering at MIT this fall, hopes to mix that up a bit. They envision the course as a direct launching pad for commercial efforts around linked data, a technology that World Wide Web inventor and course instructor Tim Berners-Lee is hoping will transform the way we glean meaning from the Web.

“It’s not about theory,” says K Krasnow Waterman, another member of the Linked Data Ventures teaching team. She says the class is designed to really force students to get practical—and commercial—in a hurry. ”We are just really excited to see people get out on the forefront and lead the way.”

Linked data is the idea of assigning Web addresses to individual chunks of information, rather than just to documents, so that these chunks can interlink and lend meaning to one another. (Wade wrote about one example, True Engineering’s “truenumbers,“ last summer.) It’s an offshoot of the effort to build the semantic Web, which Berners-Lee has also championed vigorously, where more data would be described with metadata that automated agents or other software can use to interpret or re-use the information more intelligently.

The linked-data ethic hasn’t quite caught on yet in the marketplace, which is why it makes a great subject for this style of class, says Waterman, who will be teaching alongside a team of instructors heavy on Internet, IT, and entrepreneurial experience. In addition to Waterman and Berners-Lee, who has emerged as a primary force behind the linked data movement (as he was for Internet standards such as HTML and HTTP), that includes Lalana Kagal of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, as well as Reed Sturtevant, and Katie Rae, both Microsoft Startup Labs veterans who have since co-founded business accelerator Project 11 Ventures.

“We seem to be at a really great tipping point,” Waterman says. “As the demand [for linked data] is rising in the marketplace, you’ll need some way that more people know what it is.”

The teaching team did a weeklong, condensed version of the program during MIT’s January Independent Activities Period (which offers ad hoc, sometimes off-the-cuff sessions while school is out for winter break) that resulted in seven teams producing prototypes rooted in linked data technology. One company came out with graphing software that culls numbers from any published data source to create graphs on the fly, Waterman says.

The instructors judged the finished products on their potential to play a part in the real world, and be sustainable as an independent business or open-source code. The champion team from the January session was awarded with leather motorcycle jackets embroidered with their title of winners of the competition, Sturtevant says. He adds that “an element of fun is definitely part of [the class].”

“The basic premise was instead of just having students leave a course or workshop understanding something, can we help them work towards having an impact in the field?” he says. (Off the subject aside: Sturtevant has a signature style quirk of wearing black Converse high-top sneakers starting each Labor Day and switching to white low tops come Memorial Day, so he had only recently made the switch to white when we spoke).

The teaching team is adding content to the January format for a semester-long, graduate-level class this fall that will also culminate in a competition. About 40 students will be accepted into the class, which will eventually break into teams to develop linked data prototypes. The majority of the class will be those studying computer science, but instructors also plan on letting in some business students (somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the class), Waterman says.

The “lion’s share” of the course centers on instructing students in the nuts and bolts of linked data technology. Applicants aren’t required to have much experience in the area, just “some skills and a lot of enthusiasm,” Waterman says. But the team of instructors is injecting an entrepreneurial focus into the curriculum, in order to teach the students how to convert the technology into businesses. And it is thought that having a group of business students alongside them will help with that.

“It’s bringing project and entrepreneurial thinking to what would have otherwise been a more technical class,” Sturtevant says.

The objective is to help students sort through all the information they learn about linked data and figure out which of their ideas have the most promise of making it to the market, he explains. “It’s a strong course for engineers to step back and think, ‘Now that I understand this, how do I bring it to life in the real world and help spur this trend?’”

The team aims for the Linked Data Ventures students to get their prototypes out in the world through a number of avenues, such as offering them as freeware, entering MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, or working on raising venture capital.

“As an entrepreneur, the linked data trend has the potential to spawn any number of successful businesses,” Sturtevant says.

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