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.
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