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2012: The Year of the Semantic Web

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In 1996, Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), defined modern Semantic Web technology with this vision:

If the interaction between person and hypertext could be so intuitive that the machine-readable information space gave an accurate representation of the state of people's thoughts, interactions, and work patterns, then machine analysis could become a very powerful management tool, seeing patterns in our work and facilitating our working together through the typical problems which beset the management of large organizations.

Fifteen years later, the Semantic Web is used in a variety of fields from art museums informatics to breast cancer research. Although the global implementation of the Semantic Web vision may be years from becoming a reality, many sophisticated IT departments are increasingly adopting semantic standards and migrating to semantic technology-based products to achieve the same benefits in their enterprise that the Semantic Web delivers to the Web. This technological trend will continue to penetrate industries as diverse as finance, medical devices, telecommunications, life sciences, and the intelligence community. In fact, I believe that 2012 will be the year of the Semantic Web.

Here are three use cases from 2011 that illustrate the growing impact of semantic technology in commerce and culture today, and why society is migrating toward a data-driven world.

1. Telecommunications -- The Siri Use Case

Even if you don't know anyone whose Christmas list included an iPhone 4S, it's still true that Apple sold 35 million iPhones in the first quarter, ending December. And it's estimated that Apple will sell 125 million more in 2012. That's a lot of people talking to themselves, I mean, their voice assistant Siri. She's the virtual servant or concierge who can help you arrange a place to eat or stay, activities to do, provide you with directions (hopefully better than those dictated by my GPS). All you do is speak, click, or type, and your little helper collects information from a slew of websites, assisting you in your decision-making process. It can even secure a restaurant reservation for you, or an airplane ticket. All of this is why Siri and a few other features use TWICE as much data as the last iPhone model. The iPhone 4S even uses more data than the iPad.

Co-founder, CTO, and VP Design of Siri, Tom Gruber, is a pioneer in the world of the Semantic Web. A forerunner in using the Web to collect and share information, he is credited with defining "ontology" in a technical sense for computer science -- the first one to call "ontologies" a technology for enabling knowledge sharing. Gruber established the DARPA Knowledge Sharing Library and was among the founding innovative thinkers who laid the groundwork for what we now call the Semantic Web.

2. Enterprises -- The Best Buy Use Case

In December of 2009, Jay Myers, the Lead Development Engineer at Best Buy, published a strategic formula for business data and semantics. It consisted of three circles, the first two added together to produce the third: Externally facing linked open data + Internal linked data = Insights. He explains:

The external data sphere represents human and machine readable data that you'd want everyone to access. One of the primary vehicles gaining popularity on the web is RDFa, a way of utilizing richly annotated HTML to deliver data to machines while retaining the rich visual web human users have become accustomed to... The great thing about "front-end" semantic markup techniques is with a little additional knowledge and tools, it allows countless numbers of HTML devs to create a very rich web of data by simply adding data annotations to their HTML, essentially making the entire web an open and queryable database or API for us to extract knowledge from.

Was the strategy successful? According to an interview of Jay by Doc Sheldon of SearchNewsCentral.com ("RDFa: The Inside Story From Best Buy"), I would say yes. The Best Buy Lead Development Engineer said this:

Within just a couple of months, we began to see an increase in our organic search results. Before long, it had increased by 30 percent over historical rates. We also saw an increase in our click-through rate. Yahoo did a study a while back and found that people that had rich snippets on the results pages were seeing around a 15 percent increase in CTR, which has proven to be the case for us. And of course, it makes our web site "smarter" and more open to machines, which ultimately benefits customers.

3. Museum Informatics -- The Annapolis Historic Foundation Use Case

Finally, consider the recent collaboration between a museum collection in Annapolis, Maryland and my technology firm, Orbis Technologies, Inc. The bulk of our business concentrates on delivering semantic applications to the Department of Defense and commercial clients with near-Internet data challenges. However, we were also able to use our technological capabilities to enhance the world of art exhibits. In a display that ran for seven months, we worked with the Annapolis Historic Foundation to showcase the work of a variety of craftsmen in Annapolis between the years 1700 and 1810, with special focus on portrait artists, silversmiths, and cabinetmakers.

Orbis essentially created an interactive knowledge application for the exhibit that facilitated cross-referencing of information on an artist or image. For example, by clicking on the name of silversmith William Faris, or cabinetmaker John Shaw, a person is able to access all other kinds of information related to the craftsman. As in millions of other use cases, semantic technology was used to create connections between different kinds of data available on points of interest -- in this instance, artisans and objects.

What Semantic Technology Can Do

These broad project applications of semantic technology share common components, of course. Successful implementations often have well understood process workflows that support the generation of a defined product. The unique, domain/industry vocabularies are often required for structured, semi-structured, and unstructured data. These project characteristics, combined with the correct products, can create successful semantic technology-driven projects that demonstrate the value and subsequent return on investment.

In other words, in the best of situations -- where optimal project characteristics are in place -- semantic technology can address common infrastructure problems associated with massive database integration efforts and data overload (i.e., too much data and not enough actionable information or real knowledge). The core semantic technology standards (e.g. RDF) provide machine-readable formats for explicitly describing relationships in a format that models human cognition, thereby creating information that facilitates the human decision process.

The Semantic Web allows us to invest our brain power on responsibilities and tasks that require alert human cognition -- and gives the tedious line checking and data grabbing to a machine who doesn't talk back, get grumpy or demand coffee.

That's why 2012 will be the year of the Semantic Web.

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