Semantic Web: Tools you can use

Want to get started with semantic technology? Here are some products and services to check out.

Vince Fioramonti had an epiphany back in 2001. He realized that valuable investment information was becoming increasingly available on the Web, and that a growing number of vendors were offering software to capture and interpret that information in terms of its importance and relevance.

"I already had a team of analysts reading and trying to digest financial news on companies," says Fioramonti, a partner and senior international portfolio analyst at Hartford, Conn.-based investment firm Alpha Equity Management. But the process was too slow and results tended to be subjective and inconsistent.

The following year, Fioramonti licensed Autonomy Corp.'s semantic platform, Intelligent Data Operating Layer (IDOL), to process various forms of digital information automatically. Deployment ran into a snag, however: IDOL provided only general semantic algorithms. Alpha Equity would have had to assign a team of programmers and financial analysts to develop finance-specific algorithms and metadata, Fioramonti says. Management scrapped the project because it was too expensive.

(For more information about semantic technologies, including search, see Part 1 of this story, "The semantic Web gets down to business.")

Vince Fioramonti
Vince Fioramonti says Alpha Equity Management turned to a service provider to solve the problems it encountered when implementing semantic technology.

The breakthrough for Alpha Equity came in 2008, when the firm signed up for Thomson Reuters' Machine Readable News. The service collects and analyzes online news from 3,000 Reuters reporters, and from third-party sources such as online newspapers and blogs. It then analyzes and scores the material for sentiment (how the public feels about a company or product), relevance and novelty.

The results are streamed to customers, who include public relations and marketing professionals, stock traders performing automated black box trading and portfolio managers who aggregate and incorporate such data into longer-term investment decisions.

A monthly subscription to the service isn't cheap, Fioramonti says. According to one estimate -- which Thomson Reuters would not comment on -- the cost of real-time data updates is between $15,000 and $50,000 per month. But Fioramonti says the service's value more than justifies the price Alpha Equity pays for it. He says the information has helped boost the performance of the firm's portfolio and it has enabled Alpha Equity to get a jump on competitors. "Thomson Reuters gives us the news and the analysis, so we can continue to grow as a quantitative practitioner," he says.

Alpha Equity's experience is hardly unique. Whether a business decides to build in-house or hire a service provider, it often pays a hefty price to fully exploit semantic Web technology. This is particularly true if the information being searched and analyzed contains jargon, concepts and acronyms that are specific to a particular business domain.

Here's an overview of what's available to help businesses deploy and exploit semantic Web infrastructures, along with a look at what's still needed for the technology to achieve its potential.

The key standards

At the core of Tim Berners-Lee's as-yet-unrealized vision of a semantic Web is federated search. This would enable a search engine, automated agent or application to query hundreds or thousands of information sources on the Web, discover and semantically analyze relevant content, and retrieve exactly the product, answer or information the user was seeking.

Although federated search is catching on -- most notably in Windows 7, which supports it as a feature -- it's a long way from a Webwide phenomenon.

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