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Decorating with Semantics

It’s the holiday season and the decking of halls and trimming of trees has been in full swing for a while now.  And as many of us pause as the year winds down, thoughts of the new year are not too far behind.  For those of us in technology, this is especially fun, given how prone to reinvention and growth technology tends to be.  There are new gadgets to buy, tech tools to try and even the occasional personal goal that can sometimes go alongside, such as learning a new skill.  And while personal reinvention and personal growth may occur in fits and starts (or sometimes not at all), technology itself nonetheless seems to be in a state of constant churn and at a break-neck pace, dragging humanity along whether we like it or not.

This has been especially true in the data processing and analytics space.  While mobile, cloud and consumer tech have more than made their statements in recent years (achieving “household” status in many cases), there’s no mistaking that more recently the power of data has been demonstrated writ large. Big Data is almost no longer an IT term, as anecdotes filter into the mainstream.  And while some may feel that the Big Data hype curve is leveling off, there is no mistaking that the importance of data and metrics is front-and-center in nearly everything we do, and it shows no signs of abating.

During the last few weeks of 2013, I had the opportunity to spend a bit of time with a number of existing customers as well as future prospects, across various settings.  On nearly every occasion, the topic of Semantics has come up one way or the other.  And while the anecdotes and/or use case discussions have varied, the keen interest in the topic has been both consistent and palpable.  What’s most intriguing however, are the things that I hear from the customers and prospects themselves, even (or especially) from those with limited knowledge or experience on the topic.

Which brings us to our first obligatory holiday metaphor.

I’ve heard the word “decorate” quite a bit during semantic discussions.  And no, these have not been digressions into house decorating and/or tree-trimming, but have been about decorating of the semantic kind.  It would appear that data these days, even the Big kind, has become somewhat boring and thin on context, according to some. And that is where Semantics seems to come into play. On the web, semantic standards such as RDF, allow data to be annotated (i.e. decorated) with additional context in a standard way for purposes of machine interpretation. It’s the kind of thing that allows software to “understand” that one article containing the word “mouse” is referencing a computer input device while another might refer to a small rodent. Or perhaps in keeping with holiday tradition, it’s what let’s a machine know whether an article about elves refers to Tolkien characters or to Santa’s helpers.

Projecting this functionality onto the enterprise, one can imagine the possibilities. Consider the value of clinical medical data.  Within doctor’s notes are nuggets of information that when cross-referenced with more structured data, provide new insights for a variety of Big Data use cases where clinical information would be of value (e.g. insurance underwriting, medical research, to name just a couple). But the value doesn’t stop at unstructured data. Decorating structured data is powerful in its own right. Within the enterprise, business functions transform data across system boundaries, changing the shape of business entities along the way. Semantic triples can be used to assert facts about data origin (or lineage), providing a way to capture digital “breadcrumbs” without having to explicitly model for it. The same holds true for inter-entity relationships, where semantic technologies allow for the creation of arbitrary relationships between objects without having to be bound to a relational data model or limited by relational query capabilities.

With version 7, MarkLogic jumps squarely into the Semantics domain, providing support for standards such as RDF and SPARQL (pronounced “sparkle” – you may insert your own decorating pun here…). As a result, MarkLogic 7, with the heritage of massive scale built into the foundation, becomes a first-class triple store, providing semantic capabilities to sit alongside enterprise search and enterprise NoSQL. And it’s the combination of all of those capabilities inside of a single data engine, that is perhaps most compelling.

So as you wind down your year and take down the holiday decorations, consider decorating your New Year’s resolution list with a foray into the topic of Semantics. It’s easier to start than a new diet or exercise routine, and promises to be much more habit forming.

Happy Holidays!

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