Wednesday Feb 07, 2007

foaf enabling an enterprise

Developing the Beatnik Address Book (BAB) I have found requires the software to implement the following capabilities:

  1. being able to read rdf files and understand foaf and vcard information at the very least. (on vcard see also the Notes on the vcard format).
  2. being able to store the information locally, keeping track of the source of the information so as to be able to merge and unmerge information on user demand
  3. being able to write semantic files out at some unchanging location
  4. an easy to use GUI (see the article on F3).

I would like to look at 3. the aspects of writing out a foaf file today. At its simplest this is really easy. But in an enterprise environment, if one wants to give every employee a foaf file so as to allow Universal Drag and Drop of people between applications inside the firewall, some questions need to be answered.

General Solution

The main solution and the obvious one is just to write a foaf file out to a server using ftp, scp, WebDav or the nascent Atom Protocol. Ftp and scp are a little tricky for the end user as he would have to understand the relation between the directory structure of the ftp server and its mapping to the web server urls, as well as what is required to specify the mime types of the foaf file, which is very much dependent on the setup of the web server. (see what I had to do to enable my personal foaf file) This may end up being a lot of work with a steep learning curve for someone who wishes to just publish their contact information. WebDav on the other hand, being a RESTful protocol, makes it much easier to specify the location of the file. Wherever the file is PUT that's it's name. Similarly with the Atom Protocol, though I am not sure for either of them how good they are when confronted with arbitrary mime types. My guess is that WebDav should do much better here.
In any case, using either of the above methods one can always later overwrite a previous version if one's address book changes. This is indeed the solution that will satisfy most use cases.

Professional Solution

In a professional setting though, things get to be a little more complicated. Consider for example any large fortune 500 company. These companies already have a huge amount of information on their employees in their ldap directory. This is reliable and authoritative information, and should be used to generate foaf files for each employee. These companies usually have some web interface to the ldap server which aggregates information about the person in human readable form. Such a web interface - call it a Namefinder – could easily point to the machine generated foaf file.

Now the question is: should this foaf file be read only or read/write? If it is read/write then an agent such as the Beatnik Address Book, could overwrite the file with different information from that stored in ldap, which could cause confusion, and be frowned upon. Well of course the WebDav server could be clever and parse the graph in such a way as to enforce the existence of a certain subgraph. So given the following graph generated from the ldap database

<#hjs> a foaf:Person;
             foaf:mbox <>;
             foaf:name “Henry Story”;
             org:manager <12345#hjs> .

An Address Book that would want to PUT the a graph containing the following subgraph

<#hjs> a foaf:Person;
             foaf:mbox <>;
             foaf:name “Henry Story”;
             org:manager <#hjs> .


  • get rejected, because the server decides it owns some of the relations, especially the org:manager one in this case. (What HTTP return code should be returned on failure?)
  • or it may decide to rewrite the graph and remove the elements it does not approve of and replace them. That is, replace the triple <#hjs> org:manager <#hjs> with <#hjs> org:manager <12345#bt> for example. (Again what should the HTTP return code be?)

Both of those solutions are valid, but they end up creating a file of mixed ownership. Perhaps it would be better to have the file be read only, officially owned by the company, and have it contain a relation pointing to some other file owned by the user himself. Perhaps something like the following would appear in file at :

<>   a foaf:PersonalProfileDocument;
       foaf:maker  <>;
       lnk:moreInfo </personal/294551> .

</personal/294551> a rights:EditableFile;
                    rights:ownedBy <#hjs> .

That is, in plain English the resource would say that it is a PersonalProfileDocument and that Sun Microsystems is the maker of the file and that more information is available at the resource </personal/294551>. It would also give ownership permissions on that resource. A PROPFIND on each of those files could easily confirm the access rights of each of them.

Now from there it should be possible for the user agent ( BAB in this case) to deduce that it has space to write information at </personal/294551>. There it can then write out all the personal information it likes: adding relations to DOAP files, to a personal home page, to interests and to other people known, etc... It could even add a pointer to a public foaf file with a statement such as

<> owl:sameAs <> .

Multiple Agent Problems

Having solved the problem of a writable user agent file, there remains one more distant problem of the same person ending up in a more Semantically enabled future with multiple user agents all capable of writing foaf files but each perhaps with slightly different interests. How would these user agents write files making sure that they don't contradict each other, overwrite important information that the other requires, etc...? The Netbeans user agent may want to write out some relations in the foaf file using the doap ontology to point to the projects the employee is working on... Well perhaps it is as easy as just adding those triples to the file or if then the same problem of ownership arises as above, it may be worth placing each triple into a different user agent space... Well. This seems a bit far out for the moment, I'll look at that problem when I build the next Semantic application. If people have already come across this problem please let me know.


The above are just some initial thoughts on how to do this. Are there perhaps already relations out there to help cut up the responsibility of writing out these files between different agents be they political or software ones? Are there other solutions I am missing?




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