I can’t have been the only one who found it quite surprising to hear Gordon Brown extolling the virtues of the semantic web this morning.
I have written a number of articles about semantic technology in my time, and researching the topic has usually involved speaking to German academics or niche data standards enthusiasts. To hear the Prime Minister not only name check the semantic web but also to describe it as a ‘simple concept’ was somewhat unexpected.
“I believe [the semantic web] has the potential to be just as revolutionary – just as disruptive to existing business and organisational models – as the web was itself,” said Brown in a speech entitled Building Britain’s Digital Future, “moving us from a web of managing documents and files to a web of managing data and information – and thus opening up the possibility of by-passing current digital bottlenecks and getting direct answers to direct requests for data and information.”
Broadly speaking there were two themes to Brown’s presentation: the power of web and Internet technology to make public services more efficient, and its potential to boost the UK’s economy.
Semantic technology will help achieve the former goal, Brown explained, by “transform[ing] the ability of citizens to tailor the services they need to their requirements, to feedback constantly on their success, to interact with the professionals who deliver them and to put the citizen not the public servant in control.”
In fact, this is already underway: the government’s data.gov.uk site, which makes public sector data sets publically available, does so using the resource description framework (RDF) format, the foundation of the semantic web. This means data is defined according to its semantic meaning – an address, for example, is identified as such in a universally agreed fashion – making it far easier to write applications that retrieve, analyse and update this data.
Of course, businesses are ripe for this kind of efficiency, and the development of semantic technologies in the public sector will most likely lead to greater penetration in the corporate world.
So it might be argued that semantic technology will boost the UK economy in two ways: firstly it may help UK plc to become more profitable by making the flow of information within and between businesses more efficient. And it may create demand for UK companies as Autonomy, whose semantic web search technology is already recognised as world leading.
But since we are extrapolating on the basis of precious little evidence, it could equally be argued that semantic technology will be destructive to the economy.
Could the semantic web hurt the economy?
The UK is, as we know, heavily dependent on its services sector – some estimates say it represents as much as 76% of the total economy.
Much of the work that services companies, such as banks or insurers, actually do is made up of information processes of exactly the kind that semantic technology promises to automate. So while it might make the businesses more efficient, semantic technology might also trigger a fresh wave of job losses, which could in turn damage the economy.
This debate speaks to a wider issue: the economic of benefit of IT. According to some metrics, the use of computing by businesses has brought about no measurable productivity improvement in aggregate. A report from Deloitte last year found that the average US company’s return on assets – a measure of economic efficiency – has shrank to a quarter of what it was during the 1960s when widespread commercial adoption of IT began.
But the report also argued that the reason why businesses had failed to enhance productivity through computing is that they have also failed to recognise IT’s great contribution – to improve the flow of knowledge.
“To date, enterprise IT investment has focused on standardising and automating processes in order to reduce cost,” the report’s author John Hagel told me at the time. “This has yielded some benefits, but it is ultimately a game of diminishing returns.”
Instead, it is technologies that help businesses learn about their environment, react to change and distribute knowledge internally that will make a lasting contribution to economic productivity. Hagel argued that this calls for greater use of social technology, but the same might also be said of semantic technology.
So Brown might be right when he says that being at the ‘cutting edge of the semantic web’ will benefit the UK economically. But does his confidence in this fact derive from a consideration of the above issues, or from his desire to bask in the reflected glory of Tim Berners Lee, not only the UK’s most viable claim to thought leadership in the world of the web, but also one of semantic technology’s most vocal advocates?