W3C Wraps Up Semantic Web Standards

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Tuesday passed two key standards for helping computers get more information out of the applications they are processing and match content more appropriately for end-users.

The standards body unveiled the Resource Definition Framework (RDF) and the OWL Web Ontology Language (OWL) as part of its plan for the “Semantic Web,” which W3C Director and Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee described as a “great big database” at an event last year.

The idea behind the Semantic Web is to give data more meaning through the use of metadata, which describes how and when and by whom a particular set of data was collected, and how the data is formatted.

By adding metadata to the current Web, the Semantic Web can allow people and machines to make use of data in ways that previously haven’t been possible.

What began seven years ago as a research project, which some critics said was moving too slow and would never see the light of day in products, has turned into a reality where companies such as Adobe and Sun Microsystems are employing it for content management.

“This is quite an interesting day for the Semantic Web, which is about providing incrementally powerful capabilities for describing, managing and sharing data on the Web,” said Eric Miller, W3C Semantic Web Activity Lead and a research scientist at MIT.

As the foundation for the Semantic Web, the XML-based Resource Description Framework (RDF) provides that metadata, offering users characteristics of Web pages and describing a system to support data exchange on the Web.

RDF integrates applications from library catalogs and global directories and provides the aggregation of content and collections of music, photos and events. Participants for RDF working group include HP , Nokia and IBM , among others.

While XML provides the syntax and RDF the descriptions, OWL is used to develop domain-specific vocabularies. OWL is geared for applications that need to process the content of information instead of just presenting information to humans, which is the normal course in Web document presentation.

Practical uses for OWL include Web portals, where it can be used to create categorization rules to enhance search; multimedia collections, where it can be used to enable content-based searches for media; and Web services, where it can be used for Web service discovery and composition as well as rights management and access control.

Participants for the OWL working group include the government’s DARPA project , HP, IBM, and EDS, among others.

Miller discussed the evolution of the Semantic Web specs with internetnews.com. The scientist described the process to bring RDF and OWL to fruition as a “bit of a gauntlet” that goes back about seven years, when Netscape, Microsoft and others got together to chip in a “melting pot” of technologies that led to specifications for RDF, RDF Schema and OWL.

“I think almost more social than technical changes have happened in the last few years,” Miller said. “People used to think of metadata and digital asset management as an afterthought. They weren’t part of their core business strategy for managing documents in the enterprise and they weren’t a collaborative resource on the Net the way they are now. Managing and sharing info just wasn’t a primary focus of the Web at the time. It’s moved from ‘tell’ to a ‘show’.”

That “show” comes in the form of practical uses in the enterprise from the likes of graphics software specialist Adobe and systems vendor Sun Microsystems.

Adobe has based its Adobe XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) on RDF. The Adobe Creative Suite lets users create assets powered by XMP that can be repurposed and consumed more effectively across several different media and domains.

For example, Miller said, users can take a picture, crop it and without fear of losing the original, which can be used for other publications. Metadata has become equal to, or more useful than, the applications that created it, he said.

Meanwhile, Miller said Sun is employing RDF for an in-house digital asset management system in what he said is a “daunting task to manage content in multiple languages and departments and stitching them all together.”

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