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W3C Forms Life Sciences Semantic Web Group

By Salvatore Salamone

Dec 2005 / Jan 2006 | The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the formation of a new group that seeks to bring life scientists and Semantic Web experts together to help improve the way data are accessed, shared, and analyzed. The Semantic Web Health Care and Life Sciences Interest Group (HCLSIG) aims to help life scientists tap the potential benefits of using Semantic Web technology by developing use cases and applying standard Semantic Web specifications to healthcare and life sciences problems.

This application of standards to a specific community is a first for W3C, which sees it as a way to help push the adoption of Semantic Web technology in general. “This new venture puts W3C specifications through the paces of a dynamic, multifaceted, and interdependent set of communities,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee, W3C director. “We have a remarkable opportunity to listen to the area experts, to see how our work meets their needs, and to serve their future requirements.”

Overseeing the HCLSIG is Eric Miller, Semantic Web activity lead, W3C, who will look to industry to provide the oversight needed to bring in the subject matter expertise. To that end, he has recruited co-chairs Eric Neumann (former global head of knowledge management at Sanofi-Aventis) from the life sciences and Tonya Hongsermeier, corporate manager, clinical knowledge management and decision support at Partners HealthCare System, from healthcare.

The origin of the group goes back to a meeting of researchers and IT professionals from biopharmaceutical companies and academia about a year ago. “When we brought together people in the Semantic Web Life Sciences Workshop it was exciting to see the benefits [that Semantic Web might bring to] the problems and issues they were dealing with,” said Miller. Both the W3C and life scientists recognized it made sense for the two groups to work together.

The HCLSIG will operate within the W3C as an active group where vendors, users, and industry professionals will come together in vendor-independent way to address issues facing the industry. One priority will be to develop use cases that illustrate the value of adopting Semantic Web technology, core vocabularies, and ontologies. Miller sees the group providing a forum that supports communication, education, and collaboration. “The W3C has a strong track record of sharing use cases,” said Miller.

While the HCLSIG will focus on specific issues related to the life sciences and healthcare, related W3C work in broader applications areas (such as security) will also be taken into account. Additionally, the group will work with other Semantic Web groups.

One area where the group will likely apply its efforts is to finding ways to make existing life science and healthcare vocabularies and ontologies work within a Semantic Web context. This would make it easier to access, find, and share information such that “people will start seeing the benefits as they will be able to stitch together data,” said Miller.

The group’s Web site already has a collection of several life sciences Semantic Web examples, including BioDash, active semantic electronic medical records, and Partners HealthCare Knowledge Management Portal.

To coincide with the group’s announcement, the HCLSIG also put out a call for participation in its first formal meeting. The event will be held Jan. 25 and 26 in Boston. “We hope to have people fly in from all over the world,” said Miller.

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