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.


Hi Lee,

Very well said, and I agree. I would add that we get great traction with three additional points:

1. Faster and easier data federation
2. Extensible schema that can evolve without re-architecting (due to OWA)
3. Seamless integration of text + structured data.

I look forward to your next posts!

Thanks, Mike

Agree that data is data, irrespective of the format, so that SemWeb/Linked Data technology doesn't enable completely new things. It's merely a tool that lowers the barriers for doing certain things, like integrating datasets. In a world of more and more data from disparate sources, this will continue to increase in importance.

By giving URIs to your data, you are isolating the data from the application logic. You get data instead of "Acme Inc data".

Hey Lee,

All true.

Another question, which does not invalidate yours, is:

What can I do better with Semantic Web technologies?

The fact that using SW technologies for integration is much more robust and resistant to change (change of schemas, change of data models, addition of new information, etc) is also a major advantage. Many companies would rely on triple stores internally instead of traditional databases for this reason (even if it is completely behind the scenes, ie, the end-user does not know that SW technologies are used).



Great post! It caused me to take a step back thing of a better way to think about when to use Semantic Web Technologies.

You can even do more with Linked Open Data, freely reusing other (outside your company residing) data sources.
I think that's worth to be mentioned, it's not only a question of licensing your data: their is the principal interoperability between totally different hosts of Semantic Web Data what makes the difference here (no further investment for data transformation and integration is needed!). Tim Berners Lee had clearly that in mind when envisioning the Semantic Web. I understand that a company might not want to open all their data, but they may consider top open at least a part of it. I would encourage that.