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2/4/2009
12:49 PM
Seth Grimes
Seth Grimes
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Semantic Web Snake Oil

The Gospel of Matthew says, "by their fruits ye shall know them." Judging by their work, some of the biggest Semantic Web proponents are snake-oil salesmen. What else are we to conclude when figures who fervently boost the Semantic Web can't be bothered – or are unable – to publish their own Web materials with semantic mark-up? That's why, when it comes to semantics, my bet is on analytics...

The Gospel of Matthew says, "by their fruits ye shall know them." Judging by their work, some of the biggest Semantic Web proponents are snake-oil salesmen. What else are we to conclude when academics and industry figures who fervently boost the Semantic Web can't be bothered — or are unable — to publish their own Web materials with semantic mark-up? The day they get their own acts together, that's the day the Semantic Web will emerge as more than just a questionable, always-just-over-the-horizon panacea for whatever ails Web users, as more than a justification for academic conference junketing, to solve real-world information findability problems. Who knows when we'll see that day, which is why, when it comes to semantics, my bet is (and has long been) on analytics.Analytical text technologies are quite handy at identifying and performing semantic analyses of sources to extract query-/task-relevant information including linkages and interconnections. Text analytics facilitates machine processing — the raison d'être of the Semantic Web — of material from sources that include Web pages put up by:

  • Tom Heath, whose "PhD research was focused on using the Semantic Web to support recommendation-seeking in social networks." Those recommendation-seeking systems better handle content tagging if they're going to find Heath because neither his publications page nor any of his other pages (that I saw) uses any form of intelligent content tagging.
  • Prof. Adrian Paschke, who leads the German-government funded Corporate Semantic Web (CSW) project. You won't find any semantic mark-up on his project Web site, that is, beyond HTML Meta tags and a few incidental in-line comments.
  • Alexander Wahler, CEO of STI International, whose mission is "to exploit Semantics to overcome economic, societal and technological challenges and the limitations of current communication and collaboration technologies..." STI2 didn't overcome the technological challenges or limitations on its own site or on the site for the 6th Annual European Semantic Web Conference, which it sponsors. Pages such as one listing the ESWC2009 organizing committee, with names, institutions, and countries, would seem especially to be the variety that they'd want to mark up.

If you want to see semantics done right, visit Richard Cyganiak's page and view source. Cyganiak calls himself a Semantic Web evangelist. He walks the talk.

I asked Prof. Paschke and Mr. Wahler back in December about their organizations' pages' lack of semantic mark-up. I offered the opinion that the Semantic Web won't make a significant impact so long as 1) it continues to lower competitive barriers that protect businesses that compete on price, 2) information publishers ranging from corporations and government to individuals posting to social media neither see the benefit nor have the tools to easily publish with semantic mark-up, and 3) the Semantic Web proponents themselves don't even bother to publish with semantic mark-up. Prof. Paschke responded (in part),

You are right that our website currently lacks Semantic markup since we are using a Web CMS system which has no support for Semantic markup and we had no time yet to manually add Semantic markup or write any scripts which will do this. But, this will change! We are working on solutions and tools such as Loomp which will support easy annotation of Web contents [and] Rule Responder which will support virtual communities and pragmatic web agents in virtual organizations / collaborations... Here you will find a semantic description of the organizing committee, with the different roles and their responsibility assignments. You will find further information such as RDF vCards, FOAF profiles of the committee members etc.

My reply: I had assumed that the limitation was the software in use. For instance, the STI (Alexander Wahler) site is using the Joomla content-management system. Similarly, semanticweb.org is using MediaWiki, and so on. But MediaWiki and Joomla and many other content-publishing tools are open source, and there's lots of programming talent at universities and research institutions. Folks who use them and advocate semantic mark-up could easily contribute. That is, tool constraints are not (and have not been) insurmountable.

Many or most Semantic Web proponents have not yet chosen to work around tool limitations. Obviously they see insufficient value to semantic mark-up for them to have taken steps to generate it. I don't question the value of semantics on the Web (and in the enterprise), nor of the rich inter-linking possibilities semantics enables. It's text-analytics technology that's delivering where the boosters aren't, and looking ahead, the talking-acting mark-up gap — If researchers won't practice what they preach, can we expect others to follow their lead? — supports my contention that it's analytics rather than posturing that will form the backbone of the Semantic Web.


Note to readers -- added February 10, 2009 --

I'm planning a follow-up to this article to correct errors and respond to criticisms, some of which I believe were not justified and which, I believe, do not significantly detract from my central point regarding the (practical) non-presence of the prescriptive Semantic Web as envisioned by key, core proponents. Please stay tuned...

SethThe Gospel of Matthew says, "by their fruits ye shall know them." Judging by their work, some of the biggest Semantic Web proponents are snake-oil salesmen. What else are we to conclude when figures who fervently boost the Semantic Web can't be bothered – or are unable – to publish their own Web materials with semantic mark-up? That's why, when it comes to semantics, my bet is on analytics...

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