Semantic Technology Trends from SemTech-NYC 2012

Semantic Technology & Business Conference, October 15-17, 2012

By: Gretchen Nadasky, Pratt Institute MLIS Candidate, New York, NY, USA

I was thrilled to be chosen as the IA Institute student representative at the Semantic Technology & Business Conference held on October 15-17 in NYC. In my MLIS studies at Pratt Institute, I have learned about RDF triples and the promise of the semantic web. I was eager to get up to speed on the latest trends in the industry.

For me, the main take-aways were that: 1) the most intriguing applications in semantic technology are large-scale investigations; 2) users are taking a slow and steady approach to adopting the technology; and 3) there is still a great deal of controversy around the whole notion of applicability of Open Data and how semantics can help.

Day 1 of the conference I discovered I am not alone in finding most definitions of "semantic technology" a bit slippery as each speaker began with a definition of the term. Jans Aasman, of Franz, Inc. offered "semantic solutions are abstractions that break down silos." David Wood co-chair of the W3C RDF Working Group pointed out that semantic technology is not a "zero-sum game" in that it enables information interoperability, not just integration of disparate sources. These definitions were helpful in understanding the real-world uses of semantic technology presented at the conference.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and maybe even obvious uses of semantics is for the detection of insider trading. After all, a "follow the money" strategy is obsolete in the digital age. The real fraud is detected by following the information. The SEC has been bringing larger and larger insider cases against a broad cast of cheaters from baseball players to CEOs. However, according to Ben Szekely of Cambridge Semantics, the old nets to catch the criminals are inflexible and based on outmoded ways of detecting fraud.

Cambridge Semantics has been engaged in solving pharmaceutical data problems including competitive intelligence, but they are currently developing a platform that will allow investigators to triangulate on-the-fly sources of information that people are using to game the system. Unstructured data, including research reports, news articles, and e-mails combined with structured data such as trading blotters and watch lists can be mapped and used as evidence to show where improper relationships may have helped an investor get an illegal advantage. The systems can be used by law enforcement agencies but may end up being employed by financial companies wanting to protect the firm's reputation and balance sheet against rogue traders.

Media companies have a completely different need for semantic technology. Matt Dugal, Chief Information Architect at Viacom, would like to use semantic technology to track the global tentacles of the evolving SpongeBob SquarePants franchise. The attraction of semantics is that it can show how many things are dependent on a few, which could potentially help model business processes in new ways. However, his beef is that the toolsets on hand are too manual for an enterprise as large and 24/7 as Viacom and that the visualization tools are "good for neighborhoods, but not for universes." Overall, his approach to semantic technologies will remain tactical until the scalability issues are worked out.

Challenges in harvesting and presenting Big Data were addressed by Andrew Nicklin of the NYC Open Data Initiative. The city and its agencies intend to go public with all collected data and to make "semantic information into consumable data." For governance, transparency was one motivator for releasing the data; another is to leverage crowd-sourcing to help solve some of the metropolis' problems. In spite of their largesse, the city has had some difficulty in getting people to use the datasets on offer. Like democracy itself, information can be messy. Similarly, David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous, posited that "messiness is how you scale meaning"- maybe that is what makes the promise of semantic technology so compelling.


Big thanks to Gretchen for that thoughtful and thorough analysis! Next stop for Semantic Technology & Business is San Francisco, June 2-5, 2013. Be sure to look for details at

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