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August 29, 2011

The Magic Crank

As a brief addendum to my previous post: I've been using this image for a few years now to illustrate what the Semantic Web is not. I call it the magic crank. I imagine that it sits in the corner of the office of some senior pharma executive, and every time their drug development pipeline gets a bit thin or patent protection for the big blockbuster drugs wears off, the executive pulls it out. She dusts off the crank and plugs in the latest databases full of data on genomics, protein interactions, efficacy and safety studies, etc. A few turns of the magic crank later, and she's rewarded with a little card that tells her exactly what drug to invest in next.

To me, the magic crank is the unrealized holy grail of the Semantic Web in the pharma industry. And it's an extremely powerful and valuable goal. But it's a bit dangerous as well: every time someone new to the Semantic Web learns that the magic crank is what the Semantic Web is all about, they end up trying to tackle large, unsolved problems. They end up asking "What can I do with Semantic Web technologies that I can't do otherwise?". Once you've latched onto the potential of the magic crank, it's very hard to ratchet your questions back down to the less-impressive-but-practical-and-still-very-valuable, "What can I do with Semantic Web technologies that I wouldn't do otherwise?".


Credit for the image goes to Trey Ideker of UCSD. I first saw the image in a presentation by Enoch Huang at CSHALS a few years ago.

August 22, 2011

Why Semantic Web Technologies: Are We Asking the Wrong Question?

I haven't written much lately. I've been busy building things. And while I've been building things, I've been learning things. I'd like to start writing and start sharing some of the things I've been learning.

I'd say that at least once a week, when talking to prospective customers, I get asked the following:

What can I do with Semantic Web technologies that I can't do otherwise?

It's a question that's asked in good faith: enterprise software buyers have heard tales of rapid data integration, automated data inference, business-rules engines, etc. time and time again. By now, any corporate IT department likely owns several software packages that purport to accomplish the same things that Semantic Web vendors are selling them. And so a potential buyer learns about Semantic Web technologies and searches for what's new:

What can I do with Semantic Web technologies that I can't do otherwise?

The real answer to this question is distressingly simple: not much. IT staff around the world are constantly doing data integration, data inference, data classification, data visualization, etc. using the traditional tools of the trade: Java, RDBMSes, XML…

But the real answer to the question misses the fact that this is the wrong question. We ought instead to ask:

What can I do with Semantic Web technologies that I wouldn't do otherwise?

Enterprise projects are proposed all the time, and all eventually reach a go/no-go decision point. Businesses regularly consider and reject valuable projects not because they require revolutionary new magic, but because they're simply too expensive for the benefit or they'd take too long to fix the situation that's at hand now. You don't need brand new technology to make dramatic changes to your business.

The point of semantic web tech is not that it's revolutionary – it's not cold fusion, interstellar flight, quantum computing – it's an evolutionary advantage – you could do these projects with traditional techs but they're just hard enough to be impractical, so IT shops don't – that's what's changing here. Once the technologies and tools are good enough to turn "no-go" into "go", you can start pulling together the data in your department's 3 key databases; you can start automating data exchange between your group and a key supply-chain partner; you can start letting your line-of-business managers define their own visualizations, reports, and alerts that change on a daily basis. And when you start solving enough of these sorts of problems, you derive value that can fundamentally affect the way your company does business.

I'll write more in the future about what changes with Semantic Web technologies to let us cross this threshold. But for now, when you're looking for the next "killer application" for Semantic Web in the enterprise, you don't need to look for the impossible, just the not (previously) practical.