In our quest to model Schema.org classes in TypeScript, we’ve so far managed to model the type hierarchy, scalar DataType values, and enums. The big piece that remains, however, is representing what’s actually inside of the class: it’s properties.

After all, what it means for a JSON-LD literal to have "@type" equal to "Person" is that certain properties — e.g. "birthPlace" or "birthDate", among others — can be expected to be present on the literal. More than their potential presence, Schema.org defines a meaning for these properties, and the range of types their values could hold.

The easy case: Simple Properties

You can download the entire vocabulary specification of Schema.org, most of which describes properties on these classes. For each property, Schema.org will tell us it’s domain (what classes have this property) and range (what types can its values be). For example, the name property specification shows that it is available on the class Thing, and has type Text. One might represent this knowledge as follows:

interface ThingBase {
  "name": Text;
}

Linked Data, it turns out, is a bit richer than that, allowing us to express situations where a property has multiple values. In JSON-LD, this is represented by an array as the value of the property. Therefore:

interface ThingBase {
  "name": Text | Text[];
}

Multiple Property Types

Often times, however, the range of a particular property is any one of a number of types. For example, the property image on Thing can be an ImageObject or URL. Note, also, that nothing in JSON-LD necessitates that all potential values of image have the same type.

In other words, if we want to represent image on ThingBase, we have:

interface ThingBase {
  "name": Text | Text[];
  "image": ImageObject | URL | (ImageObject | URL)[];
}

Properties are Optional

In JSON-LD, all properties are optional. In practice Schema.org cares about "@type" being defined for all classes, but does not otherwise define any other properties as being required. This is sometimes complicated as specific search engines require some set of properties on a class.

interface ThingBase {
  "name"?: Text | Text[];
  "image"?: ImageObject | URL | (ImageObject | URL)[];
}

Properties Can Supersede Others in the Vocabulary

As Schema.org matures, it’s vocabulary changes. Not all of these changes will be additive (adding a new type, or a new type on an existing property). Some will involve adding a new type or property intended to replace another.

For example, area was a property on BroadcastService describing a Place the service applies to. Turns out, a lot of other businesses also apply to a specific area. serviceArea replaced area, and instead of applying to BroadcastService, it applied to its parent, Service. In addition, serviceArea can also apply to Organization and ContactPoint (something area never did). In addition to being just a Place, serviceArea can be an AdministrativeArea or an arbitrary GeoShape.

Later on, serviceArea was replaced by areaServed, which also included a freeform Text as a possible value, and applied to a few more objects.

When a property replaces another, it supersedes it (inversely, the other property is superseded by the new one). These changes keep existing Schema.org JSON-LD backwards-compatible. A property p2 superseding p1 will generally imply:

  1. p2 is available on all types p1 was available on. (p2‘s domain is strictly wider).
    This includes (a) additional types in the domain, or (b) the domain changing to a parent class, for example.
  2. p2 includes all possible types of p1 (p2‘s range is strictly wider).

Typically, new data will be written with p2, but the intention is that any old data written using p1 continues to be valid.

In TypeScript, we can use the @deprecated JSDoc annotation to recommend using a new property instead. We can go further and simply skip all deprecated properties (properties that are superseded by one or more properties) if we wanted to.

The story of area, serviceArea, and areaServed can be partially summarized as follows:

interface BroadcastServiceBase extends OrganizationBase {
  /** @deprecated Superseded by serviceArea */
  "area"?: Place | Place[];
}

interface OrganizationBase {
  /** @deprecated Superseded by areaServed *
  "serviceArea"?: AdministrativeArea | GeoShape | Place |
                  (AdministrativeArea | GeoShape | Place)[];

  "areaServed"?: AdministrativeArea | GeoShape | Place | Text |
                 (AdministrativeArea | GeoShape | Place | Text)[];
}

Things Fall Apart

Multiple Types

"@type" is just another property (albeit it has speical meaning).

JSON-LD permits a node to have multiple "@type"s as well, and search engines are happy to accept multiple types (at least for some nodes). In practice, a node having two types means that it can have properties on both types. For example, this is valid:

{
  "@type": ["Organization", "Person"],
  "birthDate": "1980-01-01",
  "foundingDate": "2000-01-01"
}

In TypeScript, discriminating a union on an array seems to be hard, and it becomes a bit clunky to define. For now, our TypeScript definitions will not allow multiple @type values.

Sub-Properties

Schema.org takes advantage of the RDF concept of a sub-property:

If a property P is a subproperty of property P’, then all pairs of resources which are related by P are also related by P’

RDF Schema 1.1

Simply put, a sub-property is a more specific version of a property.

For example, image exists on Thing, but has two sub-properties: logo, which exists on Brand, Organization, and a few other types, and photo, which exists on a Place.

One thing I expected is not to be able to specify a super-property on a node whose type has the sub-property available. I.e., if I’m describing a Brand, it’s logo will sufficiently describe image, thereby serving no meaning to specify image.

That’s not quite true, though, a sub-property implying a property still leaves room for the property itself to be available (an Organization can have multiple images, one of which is its logo).

And while that should be true (by the RDF specification), turns even that isn’t true in Schema.org. Some sub-properties have more general types than their super-properties, e.g. photo can be a Photograph, but it’s super-property, image cannot.

So here, we simply punt.

Special Cases

Reading Schema.org documentation, you might expect as I did that there are two distinct hierarchies of data: Thing (aka classes/node types) and DataType (aka values/scalars/primitives). That’s definitely not true in JSON-LD in general, where many values are untyped to begin with, specified using an "@id" reference, or a string. Schema.org implies it imposes a tighter requirement, and describes these hierarchies dis-jointly, but that turns out not to be true.

Turns out, some types, like Distance are in the Thing hierarchy, but expect string values (in the case of Distance, those would take the form "5 in" or "2.3 cm", etc.).

We might consider having our typings include string (or Text?) for all of our classes. To encourage semantically specifying properties, however, I decided to only allow string on a subset of our nodes.

type Distance = DistanceLeaf | string;

Conclusion

Schema.org is a vocabulary designed in an inherently human way. This sometimes have repercussions of being thoughtful. Yet, just as often, it means that the semantics have evolved in a way that is inconsistent. The result is often dissatisfying: relations that are defined but don’t hold in practice, objects that are described with textual comments but have no formal relations specifying them, distances that are described as nodes, and many others. These inconsistencies often lead to hacks when trying to represent the vocabulary in TypeScript.

Yet, it’s important not to lose track of why modeling Schema.org in TypeScript to begin with. The lack of tooling around Schema.org (specifically in IDEs when writing out a specific piece of data), is precisely the need we’re filling in. But ultimately, adding structure to an ontology that is largely decided by a loose set of guidelines will be lossy.

The question remains: is the trade-off worth it?

For my purposes, schema-dts has helped me tremendously over the past several months.

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