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Creating and Managing RDF Vocabularies

As organizations move toward describing domains of interest outside of their software systems, they'll need to decide whether to define important terms and concepts on their own or reuse more general vocabularies. See how semantic web tools can help with either strategy.

o you like to relax in the morning over a cup of coffee and the "zoopepe"? Do you like to put "kapatz" on your "hogatz"? These are obviously meaningless terms to most people, but it is easy to imagine a young child using them in place of "newspaper," "ketchup," and "hotdog" because of how similar they sound. Parents have the option of correcting or playing along with their children when they make up their own words. In choosing the latter, they are accepting the terms as legitimate concepts within their child's vocabulary. While you'll find proponents of making children learn the right way to pronounce words from the beginning, you are just as likely to find an even larger number of people willing to let the children communicate freely without fear of getting it wrong, and confident that new and correct terms can be substituted at a later stage of development.

On the web and in the enterprise we frequently need to use terms from specific domains and vocabularies to convey meaning in a business context. Here, too, there is a tension between using terms that make sense to a particular party and adopting the concepts and relationships from a larger body. Most of the time our nouns, verbs, and relationships are caught up in our applications and business models. The whole thrust of the object-oriented methodology was conceived to model business terms in software. However, now there is a growing demand for modeling these terms and concepts outside of the software silos in which they are created to increase the opportunity for reuse.

As organizations make the transition toward this external modeling approach, they may feel like children acquiring new language skills. There will be questions about whether to use their own terms or to spend the time digesting what is available from industry organizations, partners, and so on. The effort to reach consensus on the appropriate names and relationships is significant, if not intractable, and going it alone may often be the right choice.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the semantic web initiative is that it requires everyone to adopt the same terms to be able to work together. This notion could not be further from the truth. While there is certainly benefit from the reuse of existing vocabularies, nothing prevents an organization from "rolling their own." There is a common set of technologies that allow you, at worst, to agree to disagree. When an existing vocabulary suits your needs, reuse it. When you need a collection of terms that caters more specifically to your immediate context, it may be worth creating your own.

Like the children who move on from their own made-up words, however, creating your own vocabularies doesn't mean you will be permanently ostracized from more central terminological activity. One of the beautiful things about the technology stack made up of the Resource Description Framework (RDF), RDF Vocabulary Description Language 1.0: RDF Schema (RDFS), and Web Ontology Language (OWL) is that at any time you can start relating your terms to those from other vocabularies. This approach provides an unprecedented ability to start small and focused, and adopt or connect to standards as they emerge.

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