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The Semantic Web: Win-Win Solution for the Toyota Mess?

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For most, the Semantic Web (or, as some call it, Web 3.0), remains a future vision whose uses and value are still questionable. Instead, I suggest we should accelerate the transition to the Semantic Web, because it offers pragmatic, affordable solutions to many of our most pressing problems. Let's look at one of those problems that's in the headlines due to the Toyota recalls: how to create a new and more effective means to improve product safety (while I will concentrate on cars, it could apply to all products).

The key to the Semantic Web is that metadata (or "information about information") is automatically attached or "tagged" to content (which is then referred to as "structured data") immediately as it is recorded. As a result, the data's meaning is clearly labeled and always means the same thing to everyone. The need to re-enter the data later is eliminated because the tagged data automatically flows to computer programs and devices as well.

In his fascinating preview of the Semantic Web's potential, Pull:The power of the semantic web to transform your business, David Siegel introduces the concept of the "Digital Birth Certificate" created from structured data, which would permanently identify every product (and all of its components). To clarify, that means, not just a code for each model, but a distinctive one for each individual product that comes off the assembly line.

Structured data would be ideal for the Toyota situation. When I did crisis management for Fortune 100 companies I constantly repeated the mantra, "Don't trust us, track us," to their senior managers. By that I meant that apologies are necessary, but they certainly won't restore consumer trust and confidence. Doing that requires substantive action: tracking the cars to monitor their safety, and quickly recalling defective ones to repair them -- something that we're learning Toyota was loath to do for at least the past two decades. Can we really trust a manufacturer that exploits every possible delaying tactic, or even tries to blame problems on users?

Unlike 20th century regulations that required onerous and costly reporting processes, one based on "structured data" could be done automatically, while the company itself could amortize the cost and effort of labeling that data by using it internally in a wide array of cost-saving ways. It would facilitate "just-in-time" supply chain optimization, while also simplifying billing and accounting because of real-time information on exactly what had been purchased and used. In fact, structured data could streamline and coordinate almost every aspect of corporate operations.

In the case of cars, the data from the "black boxes" (sensing and diagnostic modules) that most current cars include could be automatically relayed after a crash or other malfunction to regulatory agencies (a variation on what is already done by GM cars equipped with OnStar, which automatically notifies emergency responders if the airbag deploys in an accident) via the increasingly sophisticated onboard wireless devices many cars now feature and which doubtlessly will become standard in the near future.

Regulators would benefit because data about defects would flow directly to them, eliminating suspicions that manufacturers were dragging their feet and/or deliberately hiding evidence. Aggregating the data automatically, regulators could correlate data about accidents and analyze whether there was a distinctive pattern indicating a faulty component.

But even that reform wouldn't be enough to reassure skeptical owners, especially as more comes to light about the cozy relationships between NHTSA regulators and Toyota. If, as part of the Obama Administration's Open Government Directive, NHTSA released data on reported defects on an accelerated basis (and in the structured data format for ease of use), watchdog groups such as the Center for Auto Safety could do independent analyses that would hold both the manufacturers and NHTSA accountable. People weighing safety factors in deciding which car to buy would be able to make more informed decisions, and knowing that the public had access to this information would be a further prod to manufacturers to improve quality.

It's clear that the current regulatory system failed in the Toyota situation, and that the company itself didn't do enough to correct the problems. However, the last thing we need is to impose yet another unwieldy 20th-century regulatory program. Accelerating the move to the Semantic Web, and creating "smart" regulations based on structured data, would provide a wide range of benefits to all parties without creating new burdens.