It's just semantics

Fri, May 27, 2011, 01:00

SCIENCE FOUNDATION IRELAND:Looking to the internet for fast, accurate information on various aspects of a topic can be a gargantuan task. For example, a search for ‘Irish stew’ will throw up more than half a million results. Irish company Deri is now at the forefront in the work to bring a resolution to this problem

THE VAST AND ever-growing quantity of data available on the internet and the world wide web is presenting almost as many challenges as the benefits it confers. A simple search for a term such as “Irish stew” yields 542,000 results on Google, for example. For people looking for fast, accurate information on various aspects of a topic, the task can be gargantuan.

The discovery, integration and exploitation of this huge store of information have become important challenges.

The Science Foundation Ireland-funded Digital Enterprise Research Institute (Deri) is taking on these challenges by defining and executing a research agenda and outreach activities targeted at enabling and supporting people, organisations and systems to collaborate and interoperate on a global scale using semantic web technologies.

The semantic web is a term coined by world wide web inventor and Deri advisory board member Tim Berners-Lee, to describe the “web of data” that enables machines to understand the semantics, or meaning, of information on the web.

It involves the insertion of machine-readable metadata into web pages to give information on how they are related to each other, enabling automated agents to access the web more intelligently and perform tasks on behalf of users.

Berners-Lee has defined the semantic web as “a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines”.

Deri wants to be recognised as one of the leading international web science research institutes interlinking technologies, information and people to advance business and benefit society.

Its aim is to bring the web to its full potential by using semantic web technologies to bring together data and present it to users in an organised fashion.

It has already accomplished the first part of this and has become the largest semantic web research institute in the world with 130 members from 30 countries, and more than 70 PhDs and master’s degree research projects in the pipeline.

It has produced more than 550 research publications and participates in 12 international standardisation groups.

Deri chief executive Michael Turley speaks of the “linked open-data cloud” when he explains the institute’s work.

“This is happening in all areas and is doubling in size every 10 months, it’s like the speed of the early world wide web,” he says.

“This open data is there and accessible and linked but is not organised. What we are developing is the technologies which will structure, organise and present the data in a usable fashion.”

He gives a real world example of how this might happen.

“If you are going to Galway and you carry out a search on your PC or other device, the software you use to search will already know things about you and your preferences so it will not only tell you the best route to Galway, it will tell you where there are hotels that you might like in a certain price range, restaurants that suit your taste, where a certain entertainer might be performing, a golf course you have played before and so on. One search could result in your entire trip being planned or at least make planning it an awful lot easier than it is at present.”

Semantic web technologies can also go further and make inferences about users. For example, because a user went to the Eric Clapton gig in Dublin at the beginning of the month it would be inferred that they may also like to see Bob Dylan later in the year.

But it’s not just in these relatively trivial areas that it has uses. Its potential is particularly powerful in the healthcare area, as Turley explains. “If you take the example of someone with diabetes who has to monitor their blood sugar levels three times a day, in the future they might have a wearable sensor to do this. That sensor will be linked into the web and will transmit information to a healthcare system.

“If the person has been a bit careless and had a few pints and this causes a problem they will get a text message telling them that their levels are too high and that an appointment has been made with their doctor, that a supply of medication is waiting for them at their local pharmacy, and that a provisional booking has been made in their nearest hospital just in case they have to be admitted.

“In this way the physical world is connecting back into the linked open-data cloud and making all these connections with different areas of it to give the user a richer experience.”

The institute has gone about its business using a model it calls the “Deri House”.

“At the ground floor we are working on the plumbing and the infrastructure – the systems and the technologies that underpin our work,” says Turley. “Above that we are working on a number of application oriented areas including e-business and financial services, healthcare and life sciences, e-learning, e-government, and green and sustainable IT. We also have research centres working on mobile applications and linked data at this level. And up in the attic we are working on the commercialisation of our own research and on the work with external companies being carried out by our Deri applied innovations group.”

Commercialisation is very important to Deri but sometimes it is necessary to go down the open-source route and make technology available for free in order to ensure its widespread adoption.

“Tim Berners-Lee has often said that had he tried to charge even one cent for the world wide web it would never have taken off,” Turley points out. “The same applies to other enabling technologies and we take the view that if we can get them adopted it will benefit us in the end because it will enable the commercial use of other technologies we are developing.”

An example of this is one Deri application known as Sioc (semantically-interlinked online communities). It can bring all pieces of information on a particular subject together in a single view and it was used by the US government to monitor exactly what happened to the trillion-dollar stimulus package and its effects.

“I don’t know if President Obama is aware of it or not but his wish to have all this information was fulfilled by an application developed in Ireland.”

With a list of external partners which includes Avaya, Cisco, Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Celtrak, OpenLink and Storm Technology, it is clear that commercialisation is very high on the agenda.

“Patrick Mulrooney is our commercialisation development manager and I describe his job as working down the mine,” says Turley. “He’s down there looking to see what’s happening and what’s coming out of the various teams to see what we might be able to commercialise. We also have Deri-applied innovations which works with corporate enterprises to create advanced and innovative applications using our technology.”

Deri has already developed quite a few commercial applications including Pergamon, a collaborative, informal e-learning system; Atom, an application which offers compact radial layout for navigating directory trees and hierarchical structures in a way which is more intuitive for humans; Secure Digital Credentials (SeDiCi), an application which means you never have to worry about forgetting your password again because it will retain the password in the user’s browser but make it impossible for the user to be impersonated; and Maars (multi-attribute analysis and ranking system for finance) which provides fast, consistent analysis and comparison of thousands of funds for investment managers by evaluating performance and risk against multiple parameters with variable weightings.

And this is to name but a few.

For the future, Turley sees Deri linking up with other Irish institutes engaged in similar research areas and the emergence of a “digital Ireland”.

“As we go forward, if we can pull all the various centres together we will see a digital Ireland emerging. The key aspect of this will be that it will be relevant to industry and that is what will create the jobs in future.”