The Business Case for the Semantic Web

The Business Case for the Semantic Web

“The business market for this integration of data and programs is huge…. The companies who choose to start exploiting semantic web technologies will be the first to reap the rewards.” ? James Hendler, Tim Berners-Lee, and Eric Miller, “Integrating Applications on the Semantic Web”

n May 2001, Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler, and Ora Lassila unveiled a vision of the future in an article in Scientific American. This vision included the promise of the semantic web to build knowledge and understanding from raw data. Many readers were confused by the vision because the nuts and bolts of the semantic web are used by machines, agents, and programs?and are not tangible to end users. Because we usually consider “the web” to be what we can navigate with our browsers, many have difficulty understanding the practical use of a semantic web that lies beneath the covers of our traditional web. In the previous chapter, we discussed the “what” of the semantic web. This article examines the “why,” to allow you to understand the promise and the need to focus on these technologies to gain a competitive edge; a fast-moving, flexible organization; and to make the most of untapped knowledge.

If your organization hasn’t started thinking about the semantic web yet, it’s time to start. Decision makers in your organization will want to know, “What can we do with the semantic web? Why should we invest time and money in these technologies? Is there indeed this future?” This discussion answers these questions, and gives you practical ideas for using semantic web technologies.

What Is the Semantic Web Good For?
Many managers have said to us, “The vision sounds great, but how can I use it, and why should I invest in it?” Because this is the billion-dollar question, this section is the focus of this article.

Maxim ?
The organization that has the best information, knows where to find it, and can utilize it the quickest wins.

The maxim you see here is fairly obvious. Knowledge is power. It used to be conventional wisdom that the organization with the most information wins. Now that we are drowning in an information glut, we realize that we need to be able to find the right information quickly to enable us to make well-informed decisions. We have also realized that knowledge (the application of data), not just raw data, is the most important. The organization that can do this will make the most of the resources that it has?and will have a competitive advantage. Knowledge management is the key.

This seems like common sense. Who doesn’t want the best knowledge? Who doesn’t want good information? Traditional knowledge management techniques have faced new challenges by today’s Internet: information overload, the inefficiency of keyword searching, the lack of authoritative (trusted) information, and the lack of natural language-processing computer systems. The semantic web can bring structure to information chaos. For us to get our knowledge, we need to do more than dump information into files and databases. To adapt, we must begin to take advantage of the technologies discussed in this book. We must be able to tag our information with machine-understandable markup, and we must be able to know what information is authoritative. When we discover new information, we need to have proof that we can indeed trust the information, and then we need to be able to correlate it with the other information that we have. Finally, we need the tools to take advantage of this new knowledge. These are some of the key concepts of the semantic web?and this book.

Figure 1. Using Semantics: There are several uses of the semantic web in your enterprise.

Figure 1 provides a view of how your organization can revolve around your corporate semantic web, impacting virtually every piece of your organization. If you can gather all of it together, organize it, and know where to find it, you can capitalize on it. Only when you bring the information together with semantics will this information lead to knowledge that enables your staff to make well-informed decisions.

Chances are, your organization has a lot of information that is not utilized. If your organization is large, you may unknowingly have projects within your company that duplicate efforts. You may have projects that could share lessons learned, provide competitive intelligence information, and save you a lot of time and work. If you had a corporate knowledgebase that could be searched and analyzed by software agents, you could have web-based applications that save you a lot of time and money. This discussion provides some of these examples.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt of Chapter 2, “The Business Case for the Semantic Web,” in The Semantic Web: A Guide to the Future of XML, Web Services, and Knowledge Management (Wiley Publishing 2003).

Decision Support
Having knowledge?not just data?at your fingertips allows you to make better decisions. Consider for a moment the information management dilemma that our intelligence agencies have had in the past decade. Discussing this problem related to September 11 was FBI Director Robert Mueller. “It would be nice,” he said in a June 2002 interview on Meet the Press, “if we had the computers in the FBI that were tied into the CIA that you could go in and do flight schools, and any report relating to flight schools that had been generated any place in the FBI field offices would spit out—over the last 10 years. What would be even better is if you had the artificial intelligence so that you don’t even have to make the query, but to look at patterns like that in reports.” What Director Mueller was describing is a semantic web, which allows not only users but software agents to find hidden relationships between data in databases that our government already has. The FBI director’s statement also touches on interoperability and data sharing. Because different organizations usually have different databases and servers, we have been bound to proprietary solutions. System integrators have struggled to make different proprietary systems “talk to each other.” The advent of Web services is allowing us to eliminate this barrier.

The Virtual Knowledge Base (VKB) program in the Department of Defense aims to provide a solution to this dilemma. For the government, the VKB provides an interoperability framework for horizontally integrating producers and consumers of information using a standards-based architecture. By exposing all information sources as Web services, abstracting the details into knowledge objects, providing an ontology for mining associations between data elements, and providing a registry for the discovery of information sources, the VKB is utilizing key semantic web concepts and technologies to solve the information management quandary that every organization today faces.

Maxim ?
If you have a lot of information, there are implied and hidden relationships in your data. Using semantic web technologies will help you find them.

Businesses have much the same information management dilemma as the federal government. They have suborganizations, divisions, groups, and projects that have sources of information. To tap the power of these groups, you need to combine the information of groups and understand the relationships between them. The simplest example that we are accustomed to is the status report process. Each employee writes a status report. A manager takes all the status reports and combines them into a project status report. The project manager’s division director takes the project status report and creates a division status report. Finally, his or her boss compiles the division status reports into an executive summary and gives it to the president of the company. During this process, information is filtered so that the end product is an understandable report used to make decisions. Unfortunately, important information is almost always left out?especially with respect to the relationships between the work that is being accomplished in individual projects.

Work is being done in creating semantic-enabled decision support systems (DSSs) that focus on software agent analysis and interaction between the end user and computer system for decision making, in order to empower the end user to make informed decisions. Even without decision-support systems, software agents can monitor your knowledgebase and provide alerts. In a 2002 article in Information Week, Duncan Johnson-Watt, CTO of Enigmatic Corp., provided another example, suggesting that if SEC filings contain semantic tags, regulators or investors could create programs to automatically alert them to red flags such as insider stock selling. To make superior decisions, you need to have superior knowledge. The semantic web allows you to get there.

Business Development
It is important for members of your organization to have up-to-the-minute information that could help you win business. In most cases, your organization can’t afford to fly all the members of your corporate brain trust out with your sales staff. Imagine a scenario where your salesperson is in a meeting with a potential customer. During the discussion, your salesperson discovers that the customer is very interested in a certain topic. The potential customer says, “We’re thinking about hiring a company to build an online e-commerce system that uses biometric identification.” If your salesperson is able to reach into your corporate knowledgebase quickly, he or she may be able to find important information that takes advantage of the opportunity. By quickly using your corporate knowledgebase, your salesperson could quickly respond by saying, “We just wrote a white paper on that topic yesterday, and engineers prototyped an internal biometric solution last month. Would you like me to arrange a demonstration?” Because of the semantic web working in your organization, you are able to open the doors to new business.

Competitive proposals could be another important use of your company’s semantic web. If you have more knowledge about potential customers, the proposed task to bid on, and what skill sets they are looking for, you have a better chance of winning. If you had a growing knowledgebase where old status reports, old proposals, lessons learned, and competitive intelligence were all interconnected, there is a possibility that you may have a nugget of information that will be valuable for this proposal. If your proposal team was able to enter information in your knowledgebase, and you had a software agent to analyze that information, your agents may be able to “connect the dots” on information that you had but didn’t realize it.

Customer relationship management (CRM) enables collaboration between partners, customers, and employees by providing relevant, personalized information from a variety of data sources within your organization. These solutions have become key in helping to retain customer loyalty, but a barrier to creating such a solution has been the speed in integrating legacy data sources, as well as the ability to compare information across domains in your enterprise. Using the technologies discussed in this book will allow companies to create a smarter CRM solution.

E-commerce industry experts believe that the semantic web can be used in matchmaking for ebusiness. Matchmaking is a process in which businesses are put in contact with potential business partners or customers. Traditionally, this process is handled by hired brokers, and many have suggested creating a matchmaking service that handles advertising services and querying for advertised services. Experts argue that only semantic web technologies can sufficiently meet these requirements, and they believe that the semantic web can automate matchmaking and negotiation.

The opportunities for maximizing your business opportunities with semantic web technologies are limitless.

Information Sharing and Knowledge Discovery
Information sharing and communication are paramount in any organization, but as most organizations grow and collect more information, this is a major struggle. We all understand the importance of not reinventing the wheel, but how many times have we unintentionally duplicated efforts? When organizations get larger, communication gaps are inevitable. With a little bit of effort, a corporate knowledgebase could at least include a registry of descriptions of projects and what each team is building. Imagine how easy it would be for your employees to be able to find relevant information. Using semantic web-enabled web services can allow us to create such a registry.

Administration and Automation
Up to this point, we’ve discussed the somewhat obvious examples based on sharing knowledge within an organization. A side effect of having such a knowledgebase is the ability of software programs to automate administrative tasks. Booking travel, for example, is an example where the semantic web and Web services could aid in making a painful task easy. Making travel arrangements can be an administrative nightmare. Everyone has personal travel preferences and must take items such as the following into consideration:

  • Transportation preference (car, train, bus, plane)
  • Hotel preference and rewards associated with hotel
  • Airline preference and frequent-flyer miles
  • Hotel proximity to meeting places
  • Hotel room preferences (nonsmoking, king, bar, wireless network in lobby)
  • Rental car options and associated rewards
  • Price (lodging and transportation per diem rates for your company)

Creating a flowchart of your travel arrangement decisions can be a complex process. Say, for example, that if the trip is less than 100 miles, you will rent a car. If the trip is between 100 miles and 300 miles, you will take the train or bus. If the trip is above 300 miles, you will fly. If you fly, you will look for the cheapest ticket, unless you can get a first-class seat with your frequent-flyer miles from American Airlines. If you do book a flight, you want a vegetarian meal. You want to weigh the cost of your hotel against the proximity to your meeting place, and you have room preferences, and so on. As you begin mapping out the logic for simply booking travel, you realize that this could be a complex process that could take a few hours.

Information Sharing Analogy
For you Trekkies out there, an interesting analogy to the “perfect” information-sharing organization can be seen in a popular television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that show, the Borg species were masters of communication and knowledge sharing. When they would assimilate a new species, they would download all the new information into their central knowledgebase. All the members of the Borg would immediately be able to understand the new knowledge. As a result, they could grow smarter and quickly adapt into a dynamic, agile organization. Although we don’t necessarily want to be like the Borg, it would be great to share information as effectively as they did!

When employees leave, they carry with them irreplaceable knowledge that isn’t stored. Wouldn’t it be great if we could retain all of an employee’s work in a corporate knowledgebase so that we have all of his or her documents, emails, notes, and code, and retain as much information as possible? Not only that, if this information was saved or annotated with metadata in a machine-understandable format, like RDF, the information in these documents could be assimilated into the knowledgebase. If your organization could use tools that allow your employees to author their documents and tag content with annotations that contain information tied to your corporate ontology of knowledge, you could minimize the loss of data that employee turnover inevitably causes.

These are only a few ideas of how semantic web technologies can help you share and discover information in your business.

Finalizing your arrangements manually may take a long time. Luckily, with the semantic web and web service orchestration, much of this could be accomplished by an automated process. If you have all of these rules and personal travel preferences in your corporate knowledgebase, your smart travel application can choose your travel arrangements for you, using your machine-understandable rule set as the basis for conflict resolution. By accessing relatable semantic tags on online travel and hotel services, your travel application can compare, contrast, evaluate the options, and present you with a list of best matches. (A good example of this is in Chapter 4, “Understanding Web Services” in The Semantic Web.)

In short, semantic web-enabled Web services have the potential to automate menial and complex tasks in your organization. Is the Technology for the Semantic Web “There Yet”?
You may be thinking, “It sounds great, but is the technology really here yet?” While implementing the semantic web on the Internet is still a vision, the building blocks for the semantic web are being deployed in small domains and prototypes. Thus, the pieces are falling into place to make the promise a reality. Over the past five years, we have seen a paradigm shift away from proprietary stovepiped systems and toward open standards. The W3C, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) have had widespread support from corporations and academic institutions alike for interoperability. The support of XML has spawned support of XML-based technologies, such as SOAP-based Web services that provide interoperable interfaces into applications over the Internet. RDF provides a way to associate information. Using XML as a serialization syntax, RDF is the foundation of other ontology-based languages of the semantic web. XML Topic Maps (XTM) provide another mechanism for presenting taxonomies of information to classify data. Web services provide a mechanism for software programs to communicate with each other. Ontology languages (OWL, DAML+OIL) are ready for prime time, and many organizations are using these to add semantics to their corporate knowledgebases. This list could go on and on. Currently, there is an explosion of technologies that will help us reach the vision of the semantic web.

Helping the semantic web’s promise is our industry’s current focus on Web services. Organizations are beginning to discover the positive ROI of Web services on interoperability for Enterprise Application Integration (EAI). The next big trend in Web services will be semantic-enabled Web services, where we can use information from Web services from different organizations to perform correlation, aggregation, and orchestration. Academic research programs, such as TAP at Stanford, are bridging the gap between disparate Web service-based data sources and “creating a coherent semantic web from disparate chunks.”6 Among other things, TAP enables semantic search capabilities, using ontology-based knowledgebases of information.

Companies are heavily investing in semantic web technologies. Adobe, for example, is reorganizing its software metadata around RDF, and they are using Web ontology-level power for managing documents. Because of this change, “the information in PDF files can be understood by other software even if the software doesn’t know what a PDF document is or how to display it.” In its recent creation of the Institute of Search and Text Analysis in California, IBM is making significant investments in semantic web research. Other companies, such as Germany’s Ontoprise, are making a business out of ontologies, creating tools for knowledge modeling, knowledge retrieval, and knowledge integration. In the same Gartner report mentioned at the beginning of this article, which said semantic web ontologies will play a key role in 75 percent of application integration by 2005, the group also recommended that “enterprises should begin to develop the needed semantic modeling and information management skills within their integration competence centers.”So, to answer the question of this section: Yes, we are ready for the semantic web. The building blocks are here, semantic web-supporting technologies and programs are being developed, and companies are investing more money into bringing their organizations to the level where they can utilize these technologies for competitive and monetary advantage.

This article provided many examples of the practical uses of the semantic web. Semantic web technologies can help in decision support, business development, information sharing, and automated administration. We gave you examples of some of the work and investment that is occurring right now, and we briefly showed how the technology building blocks of the semantic web are falling into place. Chapter 9, “Crafting Your Company’s Roadmap to the Semantic Web,” in The Semantic Web, picks up where this article left off, providing you with a road map of how your organization can begin taking advantage of these technologies.

A Semantic Web Approach to Service Description of Matchmaking of Services,” David Trastour, Claudio Bartolini, and Javier Gonzales-Castillo, in Proceedings of the International Semantic Web Working Symposium (SWWS), Stanford, California, July 2001.

The Next Web,” Information Week, October 10, 2002.

Semantic Web Application Areas,” Fensel et. al., in Proceedings of the 7th International Workshop on Applications of Natural Language to Information Systems, Stockholm, Sweden, June 27?28, 2002.

Semantic Web Methodologies for Spatial Decision Support,” Michael J. Casey and Mark A. Austin, University of Maryland, Institute for Systems Research and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, November 2001.

Semantic Web Technologies Take Middleware to Next Level,” Gartner Research Note T-17-5338, August 2002. (Note: requires registration/purchase)

TAP,” WWW2002 Developer’s Day presentation, RamanathanV. Guha and Rob McCool, WWW2002.

The Web Weaver Looks Forward,” BusinessWeek, (interview with Tim Berners-Lee), March 27, 2002.

This article is excerpted from “The Semantic Web, copyright 2003 Michael C. Daconta, Leo J. Obrst, Kevin B. Smith (ISBN: 0471432571, Wiley Publishing Inc.) used by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.


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