Digital Directions: The Semantic Web
Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), outlined a strategy for the future of the Web in a series of papers and articles published between 1998 and 2001. He observed that while there was a wealth of information available for people to explore on the Web, computers had difficulty extracting information from it. The Web consists largely of free-form text, and computers have great difficulty understanding human language. While search engines can index the Web, a human being is required to interpret the search results. You may be able to surf the Web, but your computer can’t. The value of the World Wide Web is significantly compromised, Berners-Lee argued, without the ability for systems to interpret its content.
He proposed a solution: the Semantic Web, which would provide a bridge between the language of humans and the language of computers. It consists of a set of standards for creating XML-based tags that describe information contained on the Web in a way that computers can understand. The Semantic Web would act as a global database that software applications could meaningfully explore. Your computer could surf.
The implications for content providers are significant, and fall into two categories:
1. Value Chain Integration: A common way of labeling subject matter and meaning within content—the contents of the content—would help integrate parties along the publishing value chain: authors, publishers, distributors, retailers, consumers.
2. Research Value: The value of content for research would be enormously increased. Content that is semantically structured could be queried, as one would query a relational database. Software research agents could continually comb through the Web, looking for significant information, aiding in research. For example, a research agent could be programmed to continually monitor the Web for new findings involving the correlation between thyroid cancer and any polychlorinated biphenyls congener in Northern Europe. This would have a profound impact on legal, scientific and scholarly research.