The once-hyped semantic Web still bubbles along

The meaning-oriented data linkage concept persists, despite slow progress

Remember the semantic Web -- that concept of linking diverse data based on intrinsic meaning to satisfy your research needs? Although it hasn't enjoyed a high profile in the past few years, the semantic Web is indeed live and well, even if it never reached blockbuster status.

Both the Apache Software Foundation and the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) continue to champion the semantic Web. This week, the W3C will co-chair an industry track at the 11th Annual International Semantic Web Conference in Boston, featuring presentations from Best Buy, Oracle, and Cisco Systems. Last week, the W3C announced that 11 semantic Web specifications had moved closer to standardization.

The W3C notes that "the original Web mainly concentrated on the interchange of documents," not helping people derive useful information based on their content. By bringing semantics to the Web, the W3C hopes to provide a language for recording how data relates to real-world objects and concepts so its meaning is both embedded and consistently understood. Under the semantic Web concept, a person or machine can start in one database (including documents and Web pages) and move through a set of databases that are independently created by typically unrelated parties but are about the same thing.

Apache's Jena project provides tools and libraries to help developers develop semantic Web and linked-data applications, tools, and servers. (Linked data is a method of correlating information across documents.) Jena provides code for parsing and writing RDF (Resource Description Framework) metadata from Java or any JVM-hosted language. Jena provides an implementation of the Sparql query language, as well as an RDF database server called Fuseki. A rules-based inference engine lets developers write rules about data: "If Fido is a dog and dog is a subclass of mammal, then the rule can express that Fido is also a mammal."

"This standard is just reaching the final stages of W3C process," says Andy Seaborne, chairman of Apache Jena, adding, "I tend to think of 'semantic Web' as a style and approach, rather than a specifically defined thing."

These days, the semantic Web is "is about enabling search engines to understand the metadata embedded in Web pages, which might describe aspects other than what is marked up for formatting of the Web page," notes IDC analyst Al Hilwa. But he cites difficulties that have persisted with the semantic Web. "The idea of representing Web data with richer meaning has proven difficult to do effectively in a systematic and consistent way.... This technology is still maturing and has not gained significant traction yet, though the concept of the semantic Web is increasingly embedded in the tagging present in many websites."

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