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Jump-Starting Semantic Web Efforts

Semantic Web technology has the potential to greatly improve the way researchers find, access, share, and use data. But like any new technology, there is a learning curve that must be overcome before the technology is widely adopted.

An online poll of Bio-IT World readers found that many life scientists do not know much about the Semantic Web. For example, about 37 percent of the poll's 150 respondents said they were clueless when it came to the Semantic Web. Another 16 percent said they were vaguely aware, but needed more information. An additional 15 percent said they were intrigued by the Semantic Web, but were unsure of how to get involved (see Masters of the Semantic Web, October 2005, Bio-IT World).

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has been doing its part by developing Semantic Web standards for data description and identification, an ontology language, and a Semantic Web rules language. Respectively, these standards are the Resource Description Framework (RDF), Web Ontology Language (OWL), and the Semantic Web Rule Language (SWRL).

Despite these efforts, there is a growing realization that more must be done to evangelize the Semantic Web and to show people how to take advantage of the standards. "Organizations need examples to best understand the value of such standards," said Matthew Shanahan, chief marketing officer at Teranode, where he is responsible for product direction. "The reality is that products and case studies are just now starting to emerge that provide context and understanding of what these standards are and the novel applications they can enable." 

To hear how early adopters are taking
advantage of Semantic Web technology,
download and listen to the Bio-IT World
podcast interview with Matt Shanahan.

Shanahan's interest in the Semantic Web relates to his company's ongoing product development work. Teranode develops software that lets researchers collect, model, and analyze experimental lab data. As is the case with many informatics and other life science software vendors, the company is trying to understand how Semantic Web technologies might be leveraged to help handle, organize, and understand disparate data.

Shanahan's observation about the need for examples is on the mark. To address this need, the W3C last month took the very unusual step when it formed the the Semantic Web Health Care and Life Sciences Interest Group (HCLSIG), the first W3C special interest group centered around the challenges and requirements of a particular vertical industry.

HCLSIG hopes to help life scientists tap the potential of Semantic Web technology by developing use cases and applying standard Semantic Web specifications to healthcare and life science problems.

"This new venture puts W3C specifications through the paces of a dynamic, multifaceted, and interdependent set of communities," said 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 for the W3C will be Eric Miller, Semantic Web activity lead, W3C, who will look to industry to provide the oversight needed to bring in the subject matter expertise. He has recruited two co-chairs. From the life sciences he recruited Eric Neumann, an independent consultant and former global head of knowledge management at Aventis, which was acquired by Sanofi; and from healthcare Tonya Hongsermeier, corporate manager, clinical knowledge management and decision support at Partners HealthCare System.

One challenge the group will likely tackle is finding ways to make existing life science and healthcare vocabularies and ontologies work within a Semantic Web context. Making existing data Semantic Web-aware will make it easier to access, find, and share that information. Once the information is in a Semantic Web format, "people will start seeing the benefits as they will be able to stitch together data," said Miller.

The group's website already has a collection of several well-known and some lesser-known life science Semantic Web examples. Examples include BioDash, active semantic electronic medical records, and Partners' Health Care Knowledge Management Portal. More will be added over time.

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 January 25th and 26th in Boston. Details about the meeting can be found here. "We hope to have people fly in from all over the world," said Miller.

Related resource for Semantic Web: Neurocommons Project


Where do you stand with Semantic Web adoption? Are you gathering information? Beginning pilot projects? Fully emerged in wide-scale deployments? Drop me a note at and let me know what type of coverage would be the most useful in your Semantic Web efforts.

Semantic Web Sessions

Eric Neumann and Matt Shanahan will be presenters at a session devoted to advances in Semantic Web technology at Bio-IT World's 2006 Life Sciences Conference + Expo, its annual convention. Other speakers will be Oracle's Susie Stephens and Northeastern University's Ken Baclawski. Registration details are

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