Inside Rensselaer
* Gregory Williams
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Student Web Language Gains International Recognition
Working and learning in a community that includes students and researchers from around the world can lead to the occasional language barrier. Luckily, we can quickly adapt and work out ways to cross these barriers. Unfortunately, our computers run into language barriers all the time and until recently had no way of crossing the communication gap, greatly limiting their functionality and stalling further advancement of the World Wide Web.

Gregory Williams, a Rensselaer doctoral student in computer science who works in the new Tetherless World Constellation, single-handedly implemented a Web language that allows Web sites to speak and share data with one another. His language was given high marks by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and will form a baseline for other companies and researchers to build upon.

“My motivating base was to implement a version of SPARQL
that was easy to use and access
so researchers can quickly introduce themselves to the language
and then begin playing with it.”

In the great wilderness of the World Wide Web, billions of Web sites have grown up all their own underlying programming language. With no universal language, Web sites simply can not communicate with each other and share data. To solve these virtual communication gaps, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) issued a web language standard called SPARQL (pronounced “sparkle”) on Jan. 15, 2008 that allows Web sites to share data with one another and effectively speak the same language.

The SPARQL standard includes several different implementations that were developed by companies, university research teams, and individuals. Each implementation was then rated by W3C. William’s SPARQL implementation was among the top five languages. With standard base languages like his in place, programmers and researchers can build upon the standards to develop Web sites and technologies that can easily share data with each other in the Semantic Web.

“The Semantic Web allows computers to interact without the need for human interpretation,” said James Hendler, senior chair of the Tetherless World Constellation. “Currently the Web is written to look pretty for human eyes to read, but computers cannot read it in the same way as a person. The Semantic Web makes that information more readable to the computer and it makes the information more readable to another Web application. SPARQL will be the base language for sharing data on the Semantic Web.”

Williams, who is from Santa Monica, Calif., received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Williams began molding and surfing the Semantic Web in 2003. After earning his undergraduate degree, he worked independently to begin developing a Web language that could search for photos and information about those photos across different languages and operating systems. He began working on his implementation of SPARQL in 2005. It was around that time that he met Hendler and joined his research team, which was then based at the University of Maryland. Williams moved with Hendler to Rensselaer in 2006.

“My motivating base was to implement a version of SPARQL that was easy to use and access so researchers can quickly introduce themselves to the language and then begin playing with it,” Williams said. “I hope this will allow researchers to quickly extend the language and continue to do new things on the Web.”

William’s open source language has already received high marks from top companies looking to use SPARQL such as IBM, Oracle, and Hewlett-Packard.
The SPARQL standard helps advance the research mission of the Tetherless World Constellation at Rensselaer. The constellation, led by Hendler — who is one of the founders of the Semantic Web — and top Web language expert and constellation chair Deborah McGuinness, strives to understand and advance the Web and Web technology. The Semantic Web allows people and computers to seamlessly interact and share information with one another regardless of programming, language, or operating system.

“With SPARQL, the constellation and researchers around the world can start to build Web sites that can easily access each other,” Hendler said. “Soon we could have a Web where your Facebook and MySpace pages interact, you can plan your travel across dozens of Web sites, and buy a series of books where each book in the series purchased from a different Web site.”

To learn more about the Tetherless World Constellation, go to http://tw.rpi.edu/.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 2, Number 4, February 28, 2008
©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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