Semantic Web for Finance – answering Sean Park’s call to action


I don’t think this is going to be what Sean was asking for, but I also didn’t want to ignore the call to action, and the points that follow will hopefully lead to some useful debate. This post will probably be provocative, so lets start right out with my point of view – semantic web is not the solution, now can we get a bit clearer about what’s the problem?

Firstly, a little history. I first came across semantic web technology about 6 years ago when working on web services (SOA) governance. Most of the governance issues seemed to boil down to a lack of shared meaning, and so semantic web looked promising as a means to establish shared meaning. Unfortunately it turned out that the cure was worse than the disease. This is one of the reasons why SOA is dead.

From my perspective the key difference between the web and the semantic web is that the former can be utilised by anybody with a text editor and an HTML cheat sheet, whilst the latter requires brain enhancing surgery to understand RDF triples and OWL. The web (and web 2.0) works because the bar to entry is low, the semantic web doesn’t work because the bar to entry is too high. TimBL exhorts that the problems we collectively face could be solved by everybody contributing just a little bit of ontology, but that song only sounds right to a room full of web science sycophants. Everybody else asks onwhatogy?

I’m also not convinced that financial services needs more ‘interoperability of information from many domains and processes for efficient decision support‘. Yes, decision support and the knowledge management that underpins it needs information from many domains, but is there really an interoperability problem? Most of the structured data moving inside and between financial services organisations is already well formatted and interoperable. There’s more work to be done everywhere with unstructured data; but there’s even more to be done at better facilitating the boundary between implicit knowledge (in people’s heads) and explicit (on rotating rust, or SSDs in not too long) and back. Semantic web concentrates too much on the explicit-explicit piece of the knowledge creation cycle. The web 2.0 platforms seem to be stealing a march over semantic web by having the usability to make traversing the tacit-explicit and explicit-tacit boundaries easy. It’s all about user experience; if the techies decide to build that experience on top of a triple store and some nice way of hiding (or inferring) ontologies then cool – but who cares – somebody else might do better on top of a flat file, in a tuple space or whatever.

3 Responses to “Semantic Web for Finance – answering Sean Park’s call to action”

  1. 1 Thomas Wood

    I had to stop reading after the “little history” and the “ontology” sections and make a comment.

    As you have said in the past there is a lack of maturity in the tools out there to really make SOA and in particular the semantics easy for the masses. So rather than proclaim “SOA is dead” some have been busy creating a workable solution – a pragmatic attempt to resolve the issues you mention of “shared meaning”, “ontology” and the like.

    The solution that has been implemented utilizes an IBM product, Rational Asset Manager (RAM) which provides us with a flexible meta data repository that allows for assets (can be a server, a service or a document) to be classified against an organizational taxonomy, functional domains, vendor, technology and other taxonomies – which is fine, but the power comes in the ability to create relationships between assets. As assets are pumped into RAM via the API’s they are classified, and relationships created to other asset types, fed by/feeds, consumes/consumed, contains/contained by etc….

    So what does this look like, well after every application, server, database along with operational data, eg, outages, trouble tickets, source code metrics, runtime metrics and so on from the myriad of different sources are added. The “assets” take on a shared meaning such that a question like “which applications had more then 10 outages in January that runs on Solaris 10.x and uses Oracle 9,x and belongs to the Asset Management group X and consumes the Java logging service?”

    In the SOA world, reusable assets submitted to RAM also take on shared meaning in their implementation, deployment, usage from a consumer/provider as well as fed by/feeds…..

    The current implementation of my RAM Repository has over 20k of assets

    You mention Governance in similar vain, well with IBM integration with WSRR (WebSphere Registry Repository that uses OWL for it’s classification btw) along with Amberpoint SMS we are able to demonstrate closed loop governance – but I should save that story for a blog of mine own

    As far as anything that should be dead – UDDI should be.

    I should add that having such a repository with an ability to create assets, classifications, relationship types and capabilities without being a “web science sycophant” we are also able to model reference architectures in RAM….. use modeling tools to import/export data….. another story to be told another day, but then I would have to find a blog for pragmatics

    Thanks for blogging – the blogs are quite interesting and I should comment on more of them :-)


    Thomas Wood
    Persona non Grata

  2. 2 Chris Swan

    Thanks for stopping by Thomas, and please do comment more, I prefer conversations to sermons.

    Let’s be clear, semantic web technologies, particularly OWL and RDF, are not bad things. I’ve seen some great applications put together using these in ways that would have been very hard to achieve with say more traditional relational database approaches. They’re probably a near perfect fit for governance repositories (SOA or other), which was my argument all the way back in 2004 when Hugh and I first presented our work on SOA governance. I just don’t think they’re a panacea for whatever ails financial services (or even financial services IT).

    The trouble is that semantic web technology isn’t as accessible as regular web technology. That’s why it takes people like you, with substantial intellect and years of experience, to work with the raw technology and the platforms using it. I would wager that even with your background learning how to use RDF and OWL in an impactful way was a task on a par with learning a new programming language.

    I dearly wish that TimBL’s vision could come true – that we could share meaning by making a little more effort; but I feel that’s like wishing for a universal human language, or world peace (do you get one without the other?). Perhaps if more people were learning how to use these tools things would be easier, and maybe that’s the point of the web science brigade. At the moment though it seems that you have a problem if you need somebody that understands derivatives OR XML schema, and a real headache if you want somebody that understands derivatives AND XML schema.

    PS UDDI has in my view always been undead – a zombie technology stumbling around causing trouble. It was never really fit for the purpose it was designed for, never mind the purposes people subsequently tried to turn it to. Of course its worst failing was the use of t-models, which people found obscure and hard to understand, which kind of brings us back full circle.

    PPS ATM’s post proclaiming the death of SOA was deliberately provocative (and so by implication was my link to it). Most enterprises haven’t gone to the trouble of establishing the right culture to allow SOA to succeed. If you find yourself at a place where the incentives are correctly aligned to support what our mutual friend Joe calls ‘reuse in the large’ then that’s a lucky break.

  1. 1 The Park Paradigm - Semantic, shemantic…rich, open data is what we want.

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