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CIKM 2011 Industry Event: John Giannandrea on Freebase – A Rosetta Stone for Entities

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This post is part of a series summarizing the presentations at the CIKM 2011 Industry Event, which I chaired with former Endeca colleague Tony Russell-Rose.

The second speaker in the program was Metaweb co-founder John Giannadrea. Google acquired Metaweb last year and has kept its promise to to maintain Freebase as a free and open database for the world (including for rival search engine Bing — though I’m not sure if Bing is still using Freebase). John’s talk was entitled “Freebase – A Rosetta Stone for Entities“. I am thankful to Jeff Dalton for live-blogging a summary.

John started by introducing Freebase as a representation of structured objects corresponding to real-world entities and connected by a directed graph of relationships. In other words, a semantic web. While it isn’t quite web-scale, Freebase is a large and growing knowledge base consisting of 25 million entities and 500 million connections — and doubling annually. The core concept in Freebase is a type, and an entity can have many types. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a politician and an actor. John emphasized the messiness of the real world. For example, most actors are people, but what about the dog who played Lassie? It’s important to support exceptions.

The main technical challenge for Freebase is reconciliation — that is, determining how similar a set of data is to existing Freebase topics. John pointed out how critical it is for Freebase to avoid duplication of content, since the utility of Freebase depends on unique nodes in its graph corresponding to unique objects in the world. Freebase obtains many of its entities by reconciling large, open-source knowledge bases — including Wikipedia, WordNetLibrary of Congress Authorities,  and metadata from the Stanford Library. Freebase uses a variety of tools to implement reconciliation, including Google Refine (formerly known as Freebase Gridworks) and Matchmaker, a tool for gathering human judgments. While reconciliation is a hard technical problem, it is made possible by making inferences across the web of relationships that link entities to one another.

John then presented Freebase as a Rosetta Stone for entities on the web. Since an entity is simply a collection of keys (one of which is its name), Freebase’s job is to reverse engineer the key-value store that is distributed among the entity’s web references, e.g., the structured databases backing web sites and encoding keys in URL parameters. He noted that Freebase itself is schema-less (it is a graph database), and that even the concept of a type is itself an entity (“Type type is the only type that is an instance of itself”). Google makes Freebase available through an API and the Metaweb Query Language (MQL).

Freebase does have its challenges. The requirement to keep out duplicates is an onerous one, as they discovered when importing a portion of the Open Library catalog. Maintaining quality calls for significant manual curation, and quality varies across the knowledge base. John asserted that Freebase provides 99% accuracy at the 95th percentile, though it’s not clear to me what that means (update: see Bill’s comment below).

While I still have concerns about Freebase’s robustness as a structured knowledge base (see my post on “In Search Of Structure“), I’m excited to see Google investing in structured representations of knowledge. To hear more about Google’s efforts in this space, check out the Strata New York panel I moderated on Entities, Relationships, and Semantics — the panelists included Andrew Hogue, who leads Google’s structured data and information extraction group and managed me during my year at Google New York.

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