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About the Underlay

Learn what the Underlay does, how it works, and how it's governed.
About the Underlay
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Contributors (5)
Published
Sep 25, 2019

The Underlay is a project to make machine-readable public knowledge available to all as a public good.

Why We Need The Underlay

The creation of richer collections of machine-readable knowledge is inevitable. What is not inevitable is that these knowledge bases will be a public resource, freely available to all. In fact, many large corporations are now engaged in redundant efforts to build their own private knowledge graphs for their own needs. We believe everyone, including these companies, would benefit from making public data more easily accessible to all.

Without the Underlay, only those that have the resource to gather and maintain data will be able to take full advantage of it. With the Underlay, public knowledge will be cooperatively gathered and openly shared as a public good.

Our knowledge of the world is dynamic, changing with context and over time. As both knowledge production and disinformation accelerate, it is increasingly hard to assess the reliability of information at first glance. We need new, public frameworks for understanding the context and sources behind the data that increasingly powers our world.

What the Underlay Does

The Underlay is the structured knowledge that lets us talk about the relationships and interactions of our world. If the internet is about giving you access to a book about Marie Curie, the Underlay is about giving you access to information that helps you understand Marie Curie: the cities where she lived, her authored papers, each paper’s co-authors, those co-authors' cities of residence, the location of Curie commemorative statues around the world, and so on. If the internet is about content, the Underlay is about context.

The Underlay represents knowledge in the form of relationships between entities, for example the relationship between an author and a book, or a location and its current temperature. This method of representing knowledge is called a knowledge graph, and it can be used to represent any type of machine-readable information.

The Underlay differs from most other knowledge graphs in that it represents not only the information itself, but where it came from and what others have to say about it. Since what is trustworthy and relevant depends on the application, information in the Underlay is not assumed to be true. Instead, it is designed to be curated by others into databases that contain only the information that they judge to be trusted and relevant for their specific needs.

The Underlay draws its content from public information sources, including public records, scientific publications, commercial catalogs, the web, and open databases created for the public good. The Underlay also provides a convenient way for for-profit, not-for-profit, and government organizations to publish machine-readable information that they wish to make easily available, including schedules, catalogs, scientific datasets, public disclosures, standards, and more.

How the Underlay Works

The Underlay is not a single piece of software or a single database, but rather a suite of interfaces to connect, share, align and query machine-readable knowledge about the world from different sources.

Elements of the Underlay include:

Thus, the Underlay does not replace other databases. Instead, it makes it easier to build databases, keep them up to date, and share them with others.

Governance, Membership, and Access

Like the internet, the Underlay is an idea that requires an extensive set of protocols, agreements, compute power, and cultural norms. The Underlay is built, funded, and maintained by an open Consortium made up of knowledge providers, archives, infrastructure developers, universities, and companies.

The Underlay Consortium is developing software to enable members to choose which parts of the Underlay they will store and which new assertions they will accept. These servers are being designed to keep one another automatically updated, and allow members to maintain database based on their own criteria of trust, utility and relevance. Members are free to use and republish the data in any way they want, including making it available to non-members.

We expect some Consortium members to be for-profit-corporations, and others to be not-for-profit member that serve either a specific constituency or the public at large. Non-members access the Underlay indirectly, through Consortium members.

If you’re interested in joining the Consortium, write to consortium@underlay.org.

Read our whitepaper to learn more about the Underlay.

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