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Conference tackles challenge of a smarter Web

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It was an unusual sight to be sure. Standing on a convention center stage together were computer engineers from the four largest search providers in the world (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft Bing, and Yandex). Normally, this group couldn’t even agree on where to go for dinner, but this week in San Jose, California they were united by a common cause: the Semantic Web.

Taken literally, semantic is finding meaning in words, something the machine-based Web is still learning to do. At the Semantic Technology and Business Conference is San Jose this week, researchers from around the world gathered to discuss how far they have come and the mountain of work still ahead of them.

The four search providers were on the conference agenda to discuss their role in a key part of the project to build a smarter Web, an undertaking known as schema.org. It’s basically a way that search providers can understand the meaning of the content on the Web and allow developers to extract much more information from a typical online query. “It’s essentially a dictionary,” explained Dan Brickley of Google, “and no one has deployed vocabulary on this scale before.”

The research work behind the Semantic Web has been largely hidden from public view. Much of the hype surrounding the Internet in the past few years has been focused on big data, rather than linked data. This has made computer researchers in the semantic field understandably defensive.

“I’m fed up to the back teeth with talk that the semantic web has been a failure,” said Phil Archer, a lead researcher with W3C, the main standards organization of the Web. “We have a lot of success.”

Some of those success stories were on full display at this week’s conference. Research presentations included uses of semantic technology that are reshaping the medical field (check out Open PHACTS - a pharmaceutical database) and a much more sophisticated emergency response network that has been deployed in the Netherlands.

But the big focus right now in the semantic field and the obvious reason why competitors such as Google and Microsoft are holding hands onstage is mobile search. The advent of the smartphone now provides spoken language interaction and precise location data that begs for the ability to retrieve information in the context of who and where we are.

Already, tools like Facebook Graph Search are working to handle queries like, “give me all the restaurants in the Los Angeles area that are liked by my friends.” This is where semantic technology becomes very powerful indeed.

There are still major problems faced by researchers in this field. One is a skills shortage. Because semantic work does not get a lot of publicity, data analysts with broad Semantic Web experience are not easy to find.

There is also a perceived shortage of production tools to build the Semantic Web, a notion that people like W3C’s Archer dismiss. “There are loads of tools out there,” said Archer.

But he also admitted that his community needs to do a better job of reaching out to web developers who have so far disdained semantic technology. “Web developer hackathons want nothing to do with us,” said Archer.

Following Archer’s keynote on Wednesday, attendees heard Manu Sporny, CEO of Digital Bazaar, describe his vision that semantic technology and the power of linked data will ultimately transform the speed of financial transactions and identity security. “The people involved in this community are some of the smartest people I know in the world,” Sporny declared. Now they just have to build the smartest Web.

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