Rube Goldberg
Rube Goldberg’s “mail your wife’s letter” reminder.

I’m heading up to London on Saturday morning for Hack Day and 36 hours of sleepless techno-geekery. Earlier visions of my hack-to-be were thick with gadgets that would make Rube Goldberg weep. I pondered a toaster that etches a weather icon into your bread based on the day’s forecast.

Well, life intervened (or, more accurately, work did), and here I am, the week of the event. Alas, I never got around to finding a hardware impresario to pair up with my humble data know-how. With web-enabled teddy bears and weather-savvy toasters out the window, it occurred to me that perhaps I should, y’know, come up with an alternate idea.

I’m leaning toward doing something with tags, particularly machine tags. Machine tags work like regular keyword tags but have a special and very precise meaning to software apps. The general format was devised by the mapping community as a way to tag content with geographical data (for example, these two tags describe the latitude and longitude of the Eiffel Tower: geo:lat=48.8582, geo:lon=2.29448).

The best and worst thing about tags are their flexibility and fluid meaning. Does content tagged “green” refer to the color, to clean energy or to the political party? Machine tags instead seek to assign very specific meanings that software can understand without ambiguity.

The cool thing about machine tags is that they can pack a lot of value and information into a single tag — value that can be used to construct interesting collections of unambiguously related info (like a location on a map, in our Eiffel Tower example). There’s a lot of meaning to be mined there; Call it the ghost in the machine tag.

Hack Day logo

Anyhoo, I’ve got some ideas about building a little web gizmo that helps content producers make the most of the flexibility of free-form tagging while also enjoying the specificity of machine tags. We’ll see.

Eh, it’s no toaster. It’s certainly a more modest hack, but also one that folds up neatly into my set of interests and skills. And hey, it may actually be useful. Hopefully kinda pretty, too.

Meantime, it looks like I’ll have to come up with a different way to get my weather forecast over breakfast.

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