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Scenes from the Semantic Web Conference

By Eric K. Neumann

Dec. 2006 / Jan. 2007 | The fifth annual International Semantic Web Conference (ISWC) held in November*  attracted more than 500 conferees from 38 countries. What could have been a fairly dry event offered a diverse range of topics, from semantic blogs (semiBlog),  to an ontological metadata framework for a baseball Q&A system.

Workshops were held on many topical areas, including business applications, ontology mixing, authoring and annotation, user interfaces, geospatial tools, knowledge-bases, social collaboration, semantic sensor networks, reasoning with uncertainty, Web content mining and tagging, and specifically healthcare and life sciences (HCLS).

By all appearances, HCLS interested those Semantic Web researchers outside of the HCLS community as much as it insiders. This one-day track included a dozen presentations as well as a lightning round of shorter talks. Impressively, most of the presenters were of excellent quality and maturity.

One presentation stood out on the AlzPharm project - a collaboration between the SenseLab and SWAN projects, from researchers at Yale, Harvard, and the Alzforum. AlzPharm uses a "light-weight" RDF warehouse approach to combining drug-related data and publications information on Alzheimer's disease. The goal is to use rich semantics and the ability to query across many forms of data to support Alzheimer's research. The community has already shown how different Semantic Web  efforts can be "linked" together with minimal effort.

The CDC presented intriguing work on EpiSPIDER, a new Web application that uses RDF and RSS for aggregating global surveillance information on epidemics and world health problems. Information is dynamically collected from news feeds as well as the ProMED reports created by the International Society for Infectious Diseases. Text from these sources are mined, associated with UMLS disease concepts, and converted into RDF. The information is then associated by events and countries (using a Google-map interface) to alert health researchers around the world. Interestingly, this technology may have broad utility for drug safety surveillance as well.

There was also an intriguing project to build a Patient Summary System for the European Union that would semantically encode patient allergies and conditions, making it available in multiple languages. Medical personnel could use it to find relevant emergency information for a person involved in an accident within seconds anywhere in the EU. Coordination in ambulatory and hospital treatments, especially if performed by different medical systems, is non trivial and offers a real practical and critical case for the Semantic Web.

Other projects presented included: conversion of Entrez Gene into RDF; a community bio-service catalogue using ontologies; RDF-based chemical fragment taxonomies for AIDS research; use of ranking and inferencing to discover relations between aggregated data from diseases, genomics, pathways, and therapies; and enabling semantic reasoning in Health Level 7 clinical documents.

A Vision for the Future
The three ISWC keynote speakers painted a vision for the Semantic Web. Tom Gruber offered his view of where the Social Web meets the Semantic Web, going beyond Web 2.0's tag limitation by associating them to ontologies. His current Web project,, aspires to be the best place on the Web to share knowledge and experiences about travel. As he put it, "Many say that Web 2.0 is different than the Semantic Web. This is nonsense, and it is time to embrace a unified view. I subscribe to the vision of the Semantic Web as a substrate for collective intelligence."

Indeed, this notion of collective intelligence was a recurring thread throughout the meeting. Jane Fountain's keynote discussing how the Semantic Web can help establish and manage networked governance had implications on its applications in the public and government circles.

This year's ISWC event made clear that the Semantic Web is moving from a theoretic phase to an early implementation phase, where more applications are being developed, even from mainstream vendors. The activities in both healthcare and the life sciences are clearly on the rise as well, and many of these demonstrations are already Web-based. It will be interesting to see if some of these systems become connected to each other in the near future. Next year, there is every reason to assume ISWC attendance will continue to expand, and include more participants from different domains and industries.

Eric K. Neumann can be reached at:

* International Semantic Web Conference: November 5-9, University of Georgia.

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