It's just a matter of semantics

October 2, 2009: 10:00 AM ET

The Semantic Web promises to make data and applications smarter.

By James Hendler, assistant dean for information technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Hendler: The semantic web is here. Photo: RPI

Hendler: The semantic web is here. Photo: RPI

What do web giant Google (GOOG), the New York Times (NYT), the pharmaceutical leader UCB, and web startups Garlik and Bintro have in common?

They are among the approximately two hundred companies that have announced, this month alone, details of how they will be enhancing their businesses by using the emerging technology of the Semantic Web.  They join a rapidly growing list of companies already using this new Web stuff.  So what is it, and why haven't we heard more about it?

You've likely heard of what's known as Web 2.0 thanks to social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia. The Semantic Web, on the other hand, tends to play "below the hood," making applications, search and social networks better rather than replacing them altogether. (It is sort of the online equivalent of the BASF motto: The Semantic Web doesn't make online tools. It makes online tools better.)

Today online collaboration is very evident in written documents and communications – a Wikipedia entry gets better as more people contribute to it; Facebook gets richer as a subscriber connects to more friends.  But business software and tools, such as databases, usually reside inside corporate networks and on users' desktops and laptops – making difficult the kind of global collaboration that's rampant in the consumer world.

A little goes a long way

That's where semantics come in. A user may see the number "12203" – but not know if it is an order number, a zip code, an employee identifier, or anything else.  Applications need to know what those numbers mean, and that requires a semantic technology – something more powerful than current databases provide.

Traditional artificial intelligence tools can help make applications smarter, but AI machines and software are expensive to build and do not scale very well.  Semantic Web technologies, on the other hand, are scalable and affordable. And on the Web, a little semantics goes a long way.

That's because semantics shifts the burden of knowledge collecting from computers to users - we just need enough knowledge to get the right data to the right users, and let people do the thinking.

So, for example, when the Obama administration started sharing government data, there were hundreds of different datasets with thousands of different properties and millions of numbers. Using traditional data modeling approaches, just integrating this data available could take months. Using Semantic Web technologies a couple of my students were able to pull the data to the Web, integrate it, and build a number of interactive demos in under a week.

Does that sound too simple to be a revolution?

We'll see. Remember, it was just a bit more than a decade ago when a couple of Stanford students realized out that a simple algorithm could help us search for and find the right documents. Now semantic technology is leading to new and exciting data-rich applications that will change how business is done and the Web forever.

Dr. Hendler is one of the inventors of the Semantic Web. In addition to his role at Rennselaer, he serves as a Director of the Web Science Research Initiative and sits on the board of Bintro, an opportunity matchmaking service for businesses and individuals.

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