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relayImage by FelipeArte via Flickr

As a guy who loves to do things in spreadsheets, often using lookup-functions, pivot-tables and auto-filter to integrate data and get to what I need, I still don’t consider myself to be particularly high on the technical curve.  By this, I mean that I’m comfortable working up to my elbows in the data – but I leave abstracting it out into enterprise systems to the “IT folks”.

Considering the semantic spreadsheet capabilities described here on this ReadWriteWeb post, and the related comments, I think the real value lies not so much with the spreadsheet user (which seem to be the assumed target), but with the enterprises for which the spreadsheet-ers (if that’s a word) are working.

As was noted in the post and comments, people who aren’t capable of leveraging the serious capabilities of Excel itself won’t likely be able to navigate the system described here.  At the same time, those who can could likely achieve what they need through Excel functionality.  More skill than that, and you’re talking about “real IT people” who could perform the work in databases.

The value proposition seems more centered around enterprises being able to allow their “non-technical” people to work in environments they can easily handle (i.e. spreadsheets), while the enterprise can reap the benefit of the collective work of the spreadsheet-ers by using the semantic capabilities to integrate the disparate datasets of their forces.

Perhaps there are other, stronger methods to accomplish this without requiring work forces to swim in less friendly waters than spreadsheets, but I leave that to the “more technically inclined”.

Wall Street Sign.Image via Wikipedia

Look for tangible examples of semantic technology being employed, and you often encounter government and life sciences projects, NLP enhanced search services (such as Hakia or Cuil), or the much written about systems such as Freebase or Twine, where the semantic aspects are related to how the information in them is connected (TrueKnowledge brings the semantics closer to the surface).

For the 2008 Semantic Technology Conference, its organizers (Semantic Universe) wanted to take a look at what is going on in terms of applying these capabilities within a few sectors. For this, I organized a panel to discuss the use of the related tools within the financial space. What follows is a summary of an article I wrote on what we learned. The full writeup is in the latest issue of Talis’ Nodalities Magazine (see Issue 3, which is full of great material).

The long and the short of the discoveries were:
– There is in fact work going on here;
– the most visible of which is in financial publishing;
– and most paradigmatic, it seems, is the potential in financial reporting

The article includes perspectives shared during the panel session, which Dr. Christian Halaschek-Wiener, CTO of Clados Management, moderated – as well as descriptions of activities from some who were not able to join us. Key in digging into the topic was consideration of different realms within “finance”, and the business processes within those realms:

§ EDI/Transaction Enablement: Ioachim Drugus (SemanticSoft) EDI related work in Transaction Enablement/Management for the realm of Trading;
§ Credit Ratings: JR Gardner (Digitas) explained large Credit Rating Agency use of taxonomies, ontologies, RDF and OWL to enable interoperability of enterprise systems. Kendall Clark (Clark & Parsia) explained later that their Moodys had motivated and sponsored the recently released version of the Pellet reasoner.
§ Insurance: Jonathan Mack (Guardian Life) gave an Insurance perspective and discussed implementation within large enterprise.
§ Banking: David Palaitis (Citi) shared during our planning efforts that their use of RDF and ontologies for a Fixed Income group to improve the functioning of a legacy Regulatory Compliance system. Similarly, Shahin Nassiri (JP Morgan) outlined having defined a business process taxonomy, and maping applications to that taxonomy using OWL.
§ Identity Management: Tom Ilube (Garlik) couldn’t stay for the panel, but explained their applicability to the consumer needs in banking and finance, with identity monitoring and management built on semantic architecture.
§ Information Industry: Christine Connors (Dow Jones), and Tom Tague (Thomson-Reuters /Calais) shared what they and their media organizations are doing around direct delivery of financial information, with discussion of semantics for machines and people, respectively.
§ Information Services: Leo Keller (Netbreeze) and YY Lee (FirstRain) shared how they utilize NLP and classification capabilities to scour global content and serve up processed information in function-specific wrappers for segments of the financial community.
§ Financial Reporting: Eric Cohen (PriceWaterhouse Coopers) explained the potential impact that XBRL could have on the financial information landscape – from reporting and processing of financial information, to its distribution and analysis. Related to this, Elmar Drewitz (DrewITz Consulting) is working on XBRL to OWL mechanization for transformation of financial reports.

So the value propositions exposed through this effort included not just search efficiency, data integration and interoperability – but business process management, increased delivery speed, security, and user experience/usability, to name a few. Significantly, we also saw that the financial world’s leveraging of these technologies is to come not just of efforts from within, but from the providers of information services to it.

Be sure to read the full article for more detail. Hopefully this is the beginning of the conversation. Where and how else are you seeing these tools being implemented within and/or for financial purposes?

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Before posting thoughts about my panel/forum session at this year’s Semantic Technology Conference (SemTech08), I wanted to share a bit about the conference as a whole.

First, everyone seemed to walk away with a lot – regardless of their starting point. And the atmosphere provided for as much value from interaction in the hallway as from the sessions themselves. As (walking billboard for web2.0) Daniela Barbosa points out, there was a fourth-dimension of interaction going on behind (above/between…) the scenes (via Twitter and whatnot), also mentioned by Rachel Lovinger. I even heard that one attendee passed another some aspirin in the hallway based on a “tweet” about a headache.

The hidden gems

To capture some of the hidden gems of the week – the “PURLs of wisdom” so to speak (one of which was emphasis on the need for reliability and permanence of URIs – or persistent urls), I will, in the spirit of Eric Miller’s keynote, “reuse, repurpose an remix” or at least reference some of the writings of others about the week (but will most certainly fall short of MetaWeb Jamie Taylor’s gas powered blender metaphor). There were, after all, almost 150 sessions over the five days, and over 1000 attendees – so why not leverage some collective intelligence.

As others have noted (see links throughout), the week was quite a whirlwind – the only REST encountered likely being in references to enabling interoperability through RESTful architecture. From the experienced to the newbie alike, many had expectations of “SIOC (pronounced shock) and awe”, to riff off DERI’s Semantically Interlinked Online Communities project. (I had to use that, despite my understanding that our friends at Talis have intentions for that quip). But given the concurrent announcement(s) by Yahoo regarding semantic enablement of SearchMonkey, perhaps the experience to some was more like “SIOC the ‘Monkey”. And that may be just what the doctor ordered.

Much of the discussion in the semantic space has been about technology, standards, architecture – all necessary to solidify the resources upon which to build. And all consumable by those in the know. Mind you, this level discussion needs to continue – and as was stated numerous times during the week, all the pieces are “there” and they just need to be put together in ways for effective use – i.e. “just use what you need“, to quote the Freebase/Metaweb folks. And there’s not just one formula to do so; Carla Thompson noted Tom Tague (Thomson Reuters – Clearforest – Calais) referring to the subdomains of the space as Geekery Feifdoms (also described by Mark Johnson as “talking past each other”).

At the same time – while the technical level discussions were still present and engaging – there was a quite audible drumbeat this year, emphasizing the need simplify and to focus on real issues – in business terms – to take “this stuff” and put it to use to solve actual problems. At one point, Dave McComb of Semantic Arts (co-organizer of the conference) said, instead of the usual chicken-and-egg comparison (which I’ve used myself) – now we’re on a whole chicken farm. (By this, I assume Dave meant that it doesn’t really matter which comes first, we just need to focus now on producing eggs AND chickens – and running the farm).

Dave gave a great introduction (slides) to give some context and lay a landscape upon which everyone could layer their experiences of the week that was to follow – how we got where we are, what “is” semantics, comparing it to the relational model. Bruno Pinheiro describes his intro (as does Shamod Lacoul) along with that of W3C’s Ivan Herman, who gave a state-of-the-semantic-web intro as well. Some of his key advice came later, which Rachel Lovinger includes in her closing keynote summary. Particularly relevant to this post, she picks up on Jeff Pollock’s (Oracle) comment that “If you’re describing the value of something as being about semantic technology, you probably haven’t found the real business value yet” (see his presentation).

To put a sharper point on it, and to paint a picture of what this means from the standpoint of a business-side consumer, Tom Tague mentioned that one of his customers had said: “If you have to explain it, I don’t want it.” This underscores from the street-level that mainstream leveraging of these capabilities won’t be the result of promotion of the technologies but from the solving of problems for real people – which Nick Patience picks up in his first two bullet points.

Some are on the way

As Rachel also wrote about (linked above), Tom Ilube of Garlik is focused on how, in this online world, does one manage and protect their identity. By creating tools to enable their doing so and zeroing right in on a real problem for people, Garlik is bringing them onto the semantic web without revealing, nor needing to reveal, that fact. Leo Keller of Netbreeze showed tools for finding answers to questions which come from, but are not touted on the basis of, analyzing trends in unstructured text on the web. Tom Gruber’s talk emphasized that it is not “about” a particular application or technology, but is instead about the solution being woven into life via “the interface” (see Mark Johnson’s paragraph on Stealth Company). To me, this means tapping into the activities in which people are already engaged.

The bridge

The first step toward getting “there” is recognition of a divide (in this case, from technology to needs – solutions to problems). The past few years of this conference have been a major part of opening up and inviting business-needs-minded to immerse themselves in the possibilities. From the tone of the week, it seems this phase has begun. (I’ll write about industry verticals in a subsequent post). Now, the path from here involves reaching out from both the solution/tech side and the business side, with some assistance from the middle – to conceptualize the capabilities available and imagine them in the contexts of various business needs – and with consideration of the possible business models to support both delivery and consumption of the relevant solutions. I think Greg Boutin describes this all very well in his discussion of Powerset – a good read (in particular see his third section, entitled “Marketing semantics…”). He also places an accent on that drumbeat, quoting Tom Tague as saying “Clarify and focus on simple benefits”.

Tangent, or the other side

That would be a great place to wrap up, but at the risk of going off on a tangent, I feel the need to add one last point. I’d long ago come to see that the key value for and from semantics is in context and perspective. Seems pretty simple. But those are not just subject-focused matters. Within each individual (person, department, company…) there are multiple sets of motivation to be considered, and one of the dimensions of those motivations is time. I think Heidi Nordberg captures this when she writes of the need to differentiate between focusing on “long-term interoperability modeling goals” and short term focused addressing of “specific needs”. Perhaps there’s a way to address both together.

So we also need to go beyond targeting real problems, and and beyond simplifying the solution and message. The successful models will emerge from creating scenarios which enable the aligning of motivations – the sweet spot for opportunity.

Postscript: There was much talk at the conference of there being blue ocean, or uncontested market opportunities to be tapped by use of semantic capabilities (mind you, not for semantic capabilities themselves, but the use of them). Swim further off on this tangent and consider a purple ocean strategy that Henry Story shared over dinner with a group us the last evening – and may be applicable here.

Just as there were so many important and valuable perspectives shared at the conference, so are there scattered across the web. Apologies for not picking up on them all, but in addition to those linked above, here are some additional related posts:

http://developer-news.blogspot.com…
http://www.johnbreslin.com/blog…
http://www.jroller.com/Sandymountster…

Harold Carr shared some raw session notes, and for the conference’s own archive of wrap-ups, see: http://semantic-conference.com/news/#tripreport

(see also: related AXONomics post “Poetic Takeaway…“)

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I had initially intended to write regularly during the conference – but was just too engaged. Then I thought I’d work up a summary of all the interesting things I’d jotted down while there. A week later, I’m still catching up. I’ll come back soon with something more traditional, but in the meantime, here’s a poetic commentary describing one takeaway from the conference:

The wheel was invented circa 4000 BC, and has become one of the world's most famous, and most useful technologies.  This wheel is on display in The National Museum of Iran, in Tehran.Image via Wikipedia

For those of you who know me well,
its not
all about the wiki.
And I often say the things I do,
not (always) to be tricky.

Instead, my mind is doing things
that mix and twist and blend.
Now I come to see that this
will be a needed trend.

Spreadsheets are still my favorite
way of keeping track,
but delicious is what I often use
when I know I’ll want to go back.

People, groups and companies
go on their merry way,
not thinking through possibilities
of how and what to say.

There are the things they think they do,
and things they think we need.
What our real objectives are,
they often do not heed.

Perhaps we are not telling them,
if that’s our role to play.
The key for them is to make
what we actually need today.

So in order to get from here to there
and make the value clear,
they need to translate about their tools
which for some’s too near and dear.

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