Tom Coates: Web of Data

Tom Coates of Yahoo Brickhouse (ex-BBC) is over in Wellington for Webstock, giving a talk on the Web of Data. I’ve been a fan of Tom’s Web theories for a long time, so it was great to see him speak live.

He starts by saying that the companies that have done well on the Web (Facebook, amazon, flickr, twitter, dopplr, etc) are much more than websites – they’ve broken out of the browser/page and manifesting themselves elsewhere (devices, other sites, etc). Moreover, they’re all platforms and have benefited as a result; and some have made lots of money.

He says a “web of data” is where data sources and services are the center of the Web, rather than pages. So, he says that “your site is not your product”. Twitter is his first example of this – you can use and access it on many different services and devices. He says that 90% of Twitter activity happens through their API (see our previous coverage on this point). Flickr is another example – it manifests itself in screensavers, badges, Moo cards, and “mashups in every direction”., says Coates, is much more than a personalized radio website – it collects data on people and that becomes manifested though widgets, badges, etc.

MOO – can print photos from services such as Flickr

The world of tomorrow? It will become “more bizarre and weird” as the Internet touches more things. He gives 3 examples:

1) A physical object responds to or visualizes data from the network.

2) Interacting with a physical object allows people to change data stored in the network.

3) A physical object acts as a sensor that writes to the web of data.

He talks about Nabaztag, a network-enabled rabbit toy. Ambient Orb, Wattson, Weather Underground (“like for weather”) are other examples. He also points to AppleTV – “one of the few mainstream physical network appliances available”. See last100’s recent review of Apple TV.

So, when you’re building a new web product it must play well with others – “it’s good to design for recombination”. Coates asks: what are the opportunities for your product if it can play well with others?

Weblogs and RSS are the technological background for all of this. He says this was the first step in the consumer web – where data is discoverable and explorable. Since then apps like delicious and flickr have expanded on this. So why open up your data? Coates lists 4 reasons:

1) Drive people to your service

2) People will pay for it

3) as advertising or to put yourself in the middle of an ecosystem

4) Make your service more attractive with less central development (eg flickr)

He says the main reason though is: network effects. New services can build on other services/data, and this makes the overall ecosystem more powerful. Oakland Crimestopping is an example.

Coates then talks about Fire Eagle, his latest project at Yahoo Brickhouse. Fire Eagle is described on its website as “a new way to share your location with friends or with other websites and services”. It’s all about geo-coding and the idea is for developers to “build all kinds of applications that respond to your location”. Coates says that Fire Eagle has “APIs in two directions”, so you can do geo-presence applications. He says that while the Fire Eagle site itself doesn’t necessarily do much, other services can use the data and create powerful apps.

Coates next point: you can never have too much data. He follows up by saying that hierarchies can’t take the weight – so we need to move to “weblike exploration”. This latter point seems to complement well Peter Morville’s theories about findability. Amazon is a great example, says Coates. They have moved to manifest their data outside the categories, into the pages themselves. i.e. Amazon used to have tons of tabs, but now you can explore its data from inside Amazon webpages (and in other services too). For example the “people who bought this” feature, tags for books, and Listmania. So, he says, top navigation is now just a jumping off point – there are lots of other ways to explore data nowadays.


As always from Tom Coates, an enlightening presentation – with many things for designers and entrepreneurs both to take away. The interesting thing for me about watching this presentation is how many real world examples Coates now has to back up his theories. When I first began following Coates’ blog Plasticbag (and sadly he no longer writes long-form posts on it, just links), he was ahead of his time and – as he himself noted in this talk – only blogs and RSS were really representing the Web of data. But now we have many mainstream web companies with products that demonstrate the Web of data. And there is a lot more to come, as the Internet permeates real world objects and different devices.

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