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A Web by Any Other Name

Written for Unlimited Priorities and DCLnews Blog.

Why We Need to Know About the Semantic Web

Richard Oppenheim

Richard Oppenheim

Some say “Look out — the semantic web is coming.” Some say it is already here. Others say: “what exactly is semantic about the web?”

Whether or not you have ever heard of the “semantic web,” you need to know more about it. Probably the first step for all of us is to get past the hype of yet another marketing term for technology. We know that technology will continuously create new phrases for new features that enable us to do more than yesterday. This includes terms like personal computer, smartphone, internet, world wide web, telecommuting, cloud computing and a lot more. Twenty-five years ago, only a few folks were even using computers, let alone smartphones, e-mail, social networks, and search engines.

Tim Berners-Lee, the person credited with developing the world wide web, said, “the semantic web is not a separate web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation.”

The purpose of the semantic web is to enable words and phrases to provide links to resources, like Wikipedia, to reach across the universe of web-accessible data.

The dictionary definition of “semantics” is a range of ideas that has no defined limits. In written language, such things as paragraph structure and punctuation have semantic content. In spoken language, it is the study of the signs or symbols inside a set of circumstances and contexts. This includes sounds, tones, facial expressions, body language, foot tapping and hand waving.

There are lots of ways to refer to the huge storehouse of data outside our control, such as the internet, the web, cyberspace, geek heaven, or some other term. Whatever term you choose, know that the semantic storehouse is a repository for words, images, and applications that is way too big to measure. It is like trying to count the number of stars in the universe; only rough estimates are available.

To deliver or receive communication, we combine individual elements in small or large quantities to create spoken language, articles, books, web sites, blogs, tweets, photo albums, videos, songs, song albums, audio books, podcasts and more. Words can be from any one or multiple languages. Images can be still or moving, personal or commercial. Each element in our storehouse is always available to be used in any sequence and any quantity.

The semantic web invokes Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of every piece of data immediately accessible by anyone to use in any way they want. His vision expands the use of “linked data” to connect all web-based elements with every other web-based element. Wikipedia provides a peek into how, with its linking of terms from one posting to other entries in other posts. The resounding slogan shouted by Berners-Lee is “Raw Data Now.”

The purpose of the semantic web is to enable words and phrases to provide links to resources, like Wikipedia, to reach across the universe of web-accessible data. A current example is how CNN is expanding its resources. For on-air broadcasting, CNN summarizes its news feeds. You can login to the CNN website to access the “raw” news feeds to watch and listen without an analyst’s intervention.

Growing up, my primary reference material was a paper-based encyclopedia or dictionary or thesaurus. Books in my local town library were available, but it was hard to access books that the town library did not have. Today, all of those resources are accessible at any time without completing a weight training exercise. One fledgling example of this use of raw data is the DBpedia. DBpedia is a community effort to extract structured information from Wikipedia to expand the linkage of data. As of April 2010, the DBpedia knowledge base contains over one billion pieces of information describing more than 3.4 million things.

In 2010, you will not change your life and adopt only the semantic web over currently-used resources. Every forecast tells us that in the few years ahead there will be lots of new and rich resources available. The semantic web will enable us to collect data elements, assemble them, disassemble them and start anew or continue by adding more data elements. It will be one of the 21st century’s functional erector sets, useful for business support, personal search, and even customizable games.

The semantic web, however, is not a game. And it is, of course, under construction today and will likely be under construction for at least the rest of this century. The skeptics are stating that the goals are too lofty and not realistic. But a quick view of very recent history reveals:

  • The internet was first used by a few universities in the 1960s. Thirty years later, the world wide web started its revolutionary integration with our lives.
  • Bar code scanning was first tested on a pack of chewing gum in 1974. It was another ten years before grocery stores started to adopt the thick and thin bars. Today bar coding has grown way beyond grocery store checkout lines.
  • In 1983, Motorola released the first cellular phone for $3,000. 10 years later, the cell phone industry took its first leap. Today cellular and wireless technologies are essential tools for lots and lots of enterprises and individuals of every age.
  • In the past 10 years: LinkedIn was founded in 2002, Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006

Raw data without borders will enable, for example, each of us to create our very own Dewey Decimal filing system, including card catalogue, rolodex, and other customized information.

Technology will always ride the sea changes as new capabilities build on what has been tested and used before. Search engines enable us to ask questions and retrieve answers that are some combination of data, some precise, some tangential to the subject, and some totally unrelated to the topic. Today’s data libraries are single location silos, such as Wikipedia, that hold information beyond the capacity of my local library. With the semantic web, these silos will lose their standalone status. The new linking capabilities will deliver infinitely expanded ways to link data in any one silo with data in almost any other silo. Everything, including national security, will still require protection from criminals, hackers, and assorted bad guys.

Raw data without borders will enable, for example, each of us to create our very own Dewey Decimal filing system, including card catalogue, rolodex, and other customized information. Similar to the smartphone app world, we will have a large selection of end-user applications that integrate, combine and deduce information needed to assist us in performing tasks. Of course, we may choose to perform information construction ourselves. This would be like answering our own phone or typing our own correspondence or driving our own car. We can choose to adapt, adopt, or discard any feature that becomes available. The semantic web is real and it is growing. It has the potential to expand beyond any estimate.

About the Author

Richard Oppenheim, CPA, blends business, technology and writing competence with a passion to help individuals and businesses get unstuck from the obstacles preventing their moving ahead. He is a member of the Unlimited Priorities team. Follow him on twitter at twitter.com/richinsight.

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