What is the Semantic Web?

The idea behind the semantic web is that although online data is available for searching, its meaning is not: computers are very good at returning keywords, but very bad at understanding the context in which keywords are used. A typical search on the term “turkey,” for instance, might return traditional recipes, information about the bird, and information about the country; the search engine can only pick out keywords, and cannot distinguish among different uses of the words. Similarly, although the information required to answer a question like “How many current world leaders are under the age of 60?” is readily available to a search engine, it is scattered among many different pages and sources.

Semantic-aware applications infer the meaning, or semantics, of information on the Internet to make connections and provide answers that would otherwise entail a great deal of time and effort. New applications use the context of information as well as the content to make determinations about relationships between bits of data; examples like TripIt, SemaPlorer, and Xobni organize information about travel plans, places, or email contacts and display it in convenient formats based on semantic connections. Semantic searching is being applied for scientific inquiries, allowing researchers to find relevant information without having to deal with apparently similar, but irrelevant, information. For instance, Noesis, a new semantic web search engine developed at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is designed to filter out search hits that are off-topic. The search engine uses a discipline-specific semantic ontology to match search terms with relevant results, ensuring that a search on "tropical cyclones" will not turn up information on sports teams or roller coasters.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the museums you know best?

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    • One of the most ambitious projects evolving at the moment is Europeana, now pointing to over 19 million objects from content providers across Europe. In order to integrate this vase range of cultural content, including Europe's museum community, objects and their metadata have to be scalable, accessible and interoperable. Semantic searching and linked heritage are critical to making the library useful to users not only in Europe but to those who may wish to find out about Europe's cultural heritage. - susan.hazan susan.hazan Aug 18, 2011
    • Europe is paving the way for many things with regard to the future of the museum, heritage, and access to knowledge. This huge project is A MAJOR STEP AHEAD: FROM VISITING TO EXPLORING AND DISCOVERING. I agree with you Susan, this initiative is very important and inspiring. THE MUSEUM VISITOR SELF-TRANSFORMING INTO AN EXPLORER OF THE WORLD, linking objects, artefacts in new directions and findings for the benefits of all, starting with the institutions: the museum transformed into a knowledge-sharing centre or living knowledge nucleus: interpretation in the hands of the explorer !
      Semantic data is growing side by side with smart objects and smart exploring tools, thanks to the exploring users generating new connections, new Linking Objects Data.
      Going back in time (not so long ago...), we find it all started with Claude Shannon and his Theory of Information (1949 !!!)Go to WolframAlpha Wolfram|Alpha: Computational Knowledge Engine and make a search with the word turkey. - guy.deschenes guy.deschenes Aug 30, 2011
  • - koven.smith koven.smith Aug 31, 2011 Given the "fuzzyness" of most museum data, I think the Semantic Web is more likely to be relevant to museums (at least initially) for internal data capture and record-keeping. Semantic (and similar non-relational) databases are far more forgiving of error, and far more capable of expansion than traditional DBs. Exploring this technology in relatively low-pressure environments may prove to be where full-on Semantic thinking takes hold in museums.

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

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  • The specifics of complex metadata schema in the cultural industries that perhaps once relied on the Getty vocabularies now to need to incorporate other schema - particularly in languages other than English. The 23 languages of Europeana serve as an excellent test case as a field to develop such interoperability and several projects that are associated with Europe's digital library are currently engaged in am evaluation of vocabularies in a bid to link them seamlessly. - susan.hazan susan.hazan Aug 18, 2011
  • - nik.honeysett nik.honeysett Aug 25, 2011 In truth, I'm skeptical about whether museums need (or are capable wholesale) to retool for this. Projects like Europeana aside, I think there's too much at stake for the Googles and Amazons not to solve this from an AI-type perspective. I think it is exactly analogous to Statistical Machine Translation. Rather than try and apply rules to language translation (museums adding metadata), translation (making sense of content) is based on a learning and statistical process. - robert.trio robert.trio Aug 28, 2011 Thanks for this perspective. Working at a small museum always makes me think what can we "use" once it has been fully developed by a larger group.
  • - koven.smith koven.smith Aug 31, 2011 I feel that Facebook's Open Graph protocol and other microformat-based protocols may warrant some mention here. While many in the SW and the Microformats community feel that the two concepts are in opposition to one another, I still feel that the low barrier to entry combined with the huge (potential) benefits may make protocols like Open Graph an approachable "baby step" for many museums interested in exploring more intelligent data.

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on education and interpretation in museums?

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  • By combining current thesauri and linking metadata schemas, large data sets in cultural heritage, such as Europenana can enable seamless searching in a full interoperability of content. - susan.hazan susan.hazan Aug 18, 2011
  • Eventual impact on how learners and teachers can find and use mutually contextualizing information from distributed sources will be huge, in ways that may become so ubiquitous as to seem an unnoticeable (like air) attribute of online education and interpretation. It remains an open question whether this will play out more via purposeful retooling within the museum space or by virtue of massively built-out AI developments outside our sector, as Nik suggests persuasively above. In either of those cases, this technology's full-scale potential impact (as distinct from the conceptual impact of a small number of promising and serious efforts to implement it) may be some ways off. - rob.lancefield rob.lancefield Aug 29, 2011
  • Another perspective here.

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

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  • Linked Heritage is working with Europeana in order to evaluate cultural metadata models, and interoperability across libraries, museums, archives, publishers, content industries, and the Europeana models (ESE and EDM) http://www.linkedheritage.org - susan.hazan susan.hazan Aug 18, 2011
  • - nik.honeysett nik.honeysett Aug 25, 2011 Think of the WolframAlpha computational knowledge engine supersized to Google search: http://www.wolframalpha.com/
  • A relevant project (in the broad sense of that word) may be meetings and discussions taking place under the rubric of LOD-LAM (http://lod-lam.net/), Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives, and Museums. - rob.lancefield rob.lancefield Aug 29, 2011
  • On a smaller scale the new V&A website has taken a semantic web approach http://www.vam.ac.uk/ the success or otherwise of it has yet to be seen - lorna.obrien lorna.obrien Aug 30, 2011

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