Semantic Web Elevator Speech

17 May
2010

Many thanks to Jabin White, Director of Strategic Content for Wolters Kluwer Health Professional & Education division, for my new “elevator speech” for explaining the Semantic Web (originally conceived by Tim Berners-Lee). My “aha” moment came during Jabin’s presentation at a recent Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly (AAP PSP) division seminar on semantic publishing. Here’s the relevant slide:

[caption id="attachment_432" align="aligncenter" width="468"]Jabin White's Semantic Web Shopping List Semantic Web shopping list (courtesy of Jabin White)[/caption]

The Semantic Web will both require and consume metadata of the type shown in the right-hand, XML-labeled column. On today’s HTML-based web, Jabin’s shopping list is tagged so that it can be displayed as a list, but not much else. The future’s semantic shopping list defines the list as relating to a trip to the grocery store, and adds a category for each list item, allowing a computer to do much more with it than simply rendering it in list format. With the right “app,” Jabin’s semantic list could be sorted to match the aisle-by-aisle layout as he walks into a grocery store. Or it could warn him that his ratio of grain to veggie will blow his diet.

Of course, still to come to enable a full realization of the Semantic Web is a controlled vocabulary (or taxonomy, or ontology) to serve as the authority file—the “single source of truth”—for these semantic categories and concepts, so that systems can understand that “veggie” is the same thing as “vegetable,” and that “grain” in this context doesn’t refer to sand or bullet weights. You can imagine the challenges of language variation and disambiguation as we move from grocery shopping to more complex domains such as in the scientific, technical, and medical world.

In the medical domain, the National Library  of Medicine’s UMLS metathesaurus serves as just such an authority file. UMLS maps—to a single unique concept ID—the many different terminologies used in health care (to define insurance reimbursement and billing codes, disease diagnoses and treatments, drug information, medical literature concepts, and so on; UMLS maps 100+ terminologies). Silverchair’s Cortex biomedical taxonomy is connected to UMLS through this unique ID, but our team of taxonomy and subject matter experts work continually to make sure that Cortex and its companion Equivalents Server include the new concepts and evolving language that we encounter daily in the medical literature and through user interactions with our applications. We add new concepts and equivalents every working day, but they often don’t make it into the UMLS mapping for months or even years—an eternity in a fast-changing field like medicine.

But even with its drawbacks, UMLS gives medicine a significant leg up in terms of semantic infrastructure. At Silverchair we are betting that the promise of the Semantic Web will be realized for medicine well before most other domains.

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