Mike Daconta | How the Social Web saved the Semantic Web

Another View'commentary

Michael Daconta

The Semantic Web, a framework for allowing data to be shared and reused across traditional boundaries, has struggled to cross the chasm between early adopters and the mainstream.

Most people agree with the ideas behind strong semantics, but the cost of implementing those ideas has been too high, and it has taken too long. Thus the technology has grown slowly ' mostly among customers with deep pockets, such as those in the financial industry and the intelligence community.

The availability of good commercial tools typically lowers costs and speeds time to market, which fuels adoption.

However, the largest cost for the Semantic Web is human expertise, a cost that has remained greater than the tool investment. Thus the chief culprit holding back the Semantic Web has not been the tools but the lack of reusable and semantically rich data.

Data is the honey of the Web, and if exposed to people and systems, it attracts applications to exploit it. The more applications that share data, the greater the need for the semantics to be formalized, and a cycle is born. Enter the social Web, with communities around shared data such as photos (Flickr), Web links (del.icio.us), friends (MySpace, Facebook), encyclopedia information (Wikipedia) and news (Digg).

The social Web uses interaction and collaboration to make computing a social medium. At its center is a community of people who are willing to create and/or refine data by adding content, tags, ratings, discussions and connections ' creating honey pots of semantically rich data.

Consumers are also catching on to the idea of owning and moving their data around ' for example, by moving their social networks from MySpace to Facebook or vice versa.

Knowledge portability is a key goal of the knowledge representation community and technologies such as the Web Ontology Language.

Additionally, young people are very comfortable with this technology, even preferring it to older forms of social interaction.

The social Web has revolutionized dating, news, classified ads, music, product reviews and even phones. Finally, as these social Web sites both compete and cooperate with one another, they will increasingly look to Semantic Web technologies for an edge.

Today, a new crop of companies is leveraging the social Web phenomena and those new data honey pots to bootstrap the Semantic Web for the masses.

Some of the early leaders receiving buzz:
  • FREEBASE ' labeled as a 'shared database of the world's knowledge.' Think of Wikipedia as a database where anyone can add new types of data and new records. Add an open-application programming interface to access the data, and you have a semantic Wikipedia. I recommend people join this and contribute their knowledge.
  • POWERSET ' a semantic search company with a currently invitation-only demonstration site. They have demonstrations for a natural-language query of Wikipedia and domain-specific semantic search ' for businesses or sports, for instance. The PowerMouse demonstration is the best demo I have ever seen of the power of a semantic model such as the Resource Description Framework.
  • TWINE ' a semantic Facebook with learning algorithms. For example, Twine has an interesting 'related to me' feature that shows all the connections to you, your friends or even topics you are interested in.
  • OTHER COMPANIES gaining attention include Hakia (semantic search), AdaptiveBlue (smart links) and Knoodl (collaborative vocabularies).

The social Web, ironically, has saved the Semantic Web by harnessing communities of people around highly interactive sites to produce shared data. And that ends the chicken-or-egg ' applications-or-data ' quandary.

Daconta (mdaconta@oberonassociates.com) is the former metadata program manager for the Homeland Security Department and the author of 'Information as Product: How to Deliver the Right Information to the Right Person at the Right Time.'

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